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Actual malice standard protects statements about public officials



By Andrew Coffman

In 2012, a firearms analyst sued a newspaper, its editor, and several other employees.  The suit arose out of a newspaper article regarding analyst’s testimony in two trials.  The article, titled "SBI relies on bullet analysis that critics deride as unreliable," was part of a four-part series on failings in investigations.

The analyst claims the newspaper acted with malice and reckless disregard for the truth, including printing expert opinion the newspaper knew to be false.
The very long article had dozens of factual statements regarding the analyst and many of those the analyst claimed were defamatory.  

Ultimately, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that some of the statements could not be defamatory and that some of the statements might be defamatory.  However, it is not the analysis of the specific statements that is interesting, but instead it is the court’s discussion of the standard applied in these types of cases.  

A time-tested standard
The North Carolina court affirmed a decades old standard, actual malice, relating to defamation charges against journalists reporting on public officials.  That is, in order for a published statement about a public official to be defamatory, that statement must have been made with actual malice.  The court defined the actual malice standard as requiring sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.

In cases such as this, this standard serves to protect news organizations and allows for the free coverage of matters of public importance.  Without this standard, free speech could be chilled as reporters and papers would have to be much more careful in reporting facts they believed to be true, but which might prove false.  

Once again, the North Carolina Court’s recent decision protects the press from such an untenable situation and makes statements about public officials actionable, only when those statements are made with actual malice.




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