At the end of last week, the press reported on the jury verdict finding Rolling Stone magazine to be liable for defamation for its story, later retracted, about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The case was brought by a University administrator who was portrayed negatively, including making her sound as if she had been indifferent or dismissive of the alleged rape, which evidence later showed to be untrue. Even though the court deemed the administrator to be a “public figure,” the jury nevertheless found that there was sufficient “malice” on the part of Rolling Stone to merit the finding of liability. While this decision may well be appealed, it nevertheless is a finding of which broadcasters and other media companies need to take note, as it demonstrates that a sloppy review of the facts of a news report can lead to liability – even when reporting on public figures and important issues of wide public concern.
Under the NY Times v Sullivan Supreme Court precedent, the decision in defamation cases quite often depends on the determination of whether the person who was allegedly defamed is a public figure. The thinking of the Supreme Court in adopting the distinction between public figures and private individuals is that the public has more interest in vetting public figures, and by becoming a public figure, individuals expect that their conduct will be under scrutiny. To adopt a strict liability standard for public figures would mean that, if any mistake is made in reporting on their actions, a press outlet could find itself facing defamation liability, even if that mistake was made in good faith after reasonable reporting had been done. To avoid this strict liability, the Supreme Court decided that, if the victim is a public figure, to find liability, the jury must find not only that the statement made by the defendant was false, but also that it was made with “malice.” What does that mean?
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