Why is the status of a plaintiff so important in defamation law?
The status of the plaintiff (person bringing a lawsuit) in defamation law is important because there are different legal standards for different types of plaintiffs. The legal standard changes depending upon whether the defamation plaintiff is a private or public figure. Private figures must show that a defendant was negligent, or at fault, in order to prevail. But, so-called public figures or public officials who sue for defamation must meet a higher legal standard. They must show that a defendant acted with actual malice by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover. The courts have defined actual malice as knowing that a statement was false or acting in reckless disregard as to whether a statement was true or false.
This difference in legal standards shows why a significant amount of defamation litigation focuses on whether the plaintiff is a private or public figure. Defamation defendants will often argue that plaintiffs are public figures, while plaintiffs will often contend that they are private figures.