Is truth a defense in libel lawsuits?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Truth is an absolute defense to libel claims because one of the elements that must be proven in a defamation suit is falsity of the statement. If a statement is true, it cannot be false, and therefore there is no prima facie case of defamation. There are numerous jurisdictions (including Florida) that have adopted the substantial-truth doctrine, which offers protection to a defendant of a defamation claim as long as the “gist” of the story is true.

In the 1964 ruling New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements regarding public officials unless the statement was made with actual malice — “with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.” The Court set a new standard by requiring that a public-official defamation plaintiff show evidence of actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. If the plaintiff is a private person, then only negligence needs to be proven, assuming the defamatory statement was false. However, if the private person wants to recover punitive damages, she must show that actual malice existed, as well.