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 his/her business or profession.
Libel is 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 freedom of expression secured by the First Amendment limits a State's power to award damages in actions for libel.
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Court held that proof of actual malice is required for an award of damages in an action for libel involving public figures or matters of public concern. See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). 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.
In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 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. See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974). 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 comensation for actual injury. The Gertz Court held that in a case involving a matter of public concern, recovery of presumed or punitive damages is not permitted without a showing of malice; that is, unless liability is based on a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.
In Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., the 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. See Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749 (1985). In Dun & Bradstreet, the Court determined that the First Amendment was not violated by permitting recovery of presumed and punitive damages absent a showing of malice when the defamatory statements do not involve issues of public concern.