In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court recognized that the strict liability rules in defamation cases would lead to undesirable results when members of the press report on the activities of public officials. Under the strict liability rules of common law, a public official would not have to prove that a reporter was aware that a particular statement about the official was false in order to recover from the reporter. This could have the effect of deterring members of the press from commenting on the activities of a public official.
Under the rules set forth in Sullivan, a public official cannot recover from a person who publishes a communication about a public official’s conduct or fitness unless the defendant knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of the statements truth or falsity. This standard is referred to as “actual malice,” although malice in this sense does not mean ill-will. Instead, the actual malice standard refers to the defendant’s knowledge of the truth or falsity of the statement. Public officials generally include employees of the government who have responsibility over affairs of the government. In order for the First Amendment rule to apply to the public official, the communication must concern a matter related directly to the office.
Later cases expanded the rule to apply to public figures. A public figure is someone who has gained a significant degree of fame or notoriety in general or in the context of a particular issue or controversy. Even though these figures have no official role in government affairs, they often hold considerable influence over decisions made by the government or by the public. Examples of public figures are numerous and could include, for instance, celebrities, prominent athletes, or advocates who involve themselves in a public debate.