Libel is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person's reputation; exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule; or injures a person in their business or profession.
Traditionally, libel was a tort governed by state law. State courts generally follow the common law of libel, which allows recovery of damages without proof of actual harm. Under the traditional rules of libel, injury is presumed from the fact of publication. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of expression limits a State's ability to award damages in actions for libel.
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Court held that proof of actual malice is required for an award of damages in an action for libel involving public officials or matters of public concern. The Court reasoned that speech related to matters of public concern is at the heart of the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment and outweighs the State's interest in compensating individuals for damage to their reputations. This "actual malice" test created a national judicial standard for whether speech qualifies as libel.
In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), the Supreme Court decided that, in addition to public officials, public figures must also prove that actual malice had been the intent of libelous claims against them.
In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974), the Court refused to extend the New York Times standard to actions for libel involving private individuals even where the matter is of public concern. In Gertz, the Court recognized a strong and legitimate state interest in compensating private individuals for injury to reputation but cautioned that this interest extends no further than compensation for actual injury. The Gertz Court held that in a case regarding a public concern, recovery of presumed or punitive damages is not permitted without a showing of malice. The only exception to this is when the liability is based on a showing of knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth.
In Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc. (1985), the Supreme Court held that in actions for libel involving private individuals and matters of purely private concern, presumed and punitive damages may be awarded on a lesser showing than actual malice. The Court determined that the First Amendment was not violated by permitting recovery of presumed and punitive damages without a showing of malice, as long as the defamatory statements do not involve issues of public concern.
For more on the subject, see this DePaul Law Review article, this University of Tennessee Law article, this Syracuse Law Review article, and this Columbia Science and Technology Law Review article.
[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]