Compared to private citizens, public officials receive stronger protections against defamation claims. Conversely, they may face greater challenges than private citizens in bringing defamation claims against reporters and others who are making allegedly false statements about them. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution shields the freedom of speech, and the actions of public officials have been viewed as a matter of public concern that merits close scrutiny. At the same time, public officials need to perform their jobs effectively without constantly fighting lawsuits. Thus, they can defend against defamation claims based on their own statements by citing an absolute privilege.
Defamation Claims by Public Officials
As long as the media make statements in good faith and in the public interest, a defamation claim by a public official likely will not succeed. A journalist makes a statement in good faith when they reasonably believe that it is true, which often means checking the credibility of their sources. The First Amendment does not shield journalists from liability in defamation cases brought by public officials when they knowingly make false statements or when they recklessly fail to check the accuracy of their statements.
The main case in this area of the law is New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which arose from allegations of police corruption in Alabama during the civil rights era. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper was not liable to the police commissioner who brought the claim, since it did not knowingly publish a false statement or fail to check its accuracy. The Court felt that the right of public officials to perform their duties without risking liability for defamation required a strong counterbalancing protection for citizens who are criticizing the actions of public officials.
Defamation Claims Against Public Officials
In general, public officials may make statements that adversely affect the reputation of others without being exposed to liability. This is because an absolute privilege against defamation applies to the President and other executive officers, even when they knowingly make a false statement or intend to harm the subject of the statement. Courts have viewed this privilege as necessary to ensure the efficient operation of the executive branch in administering national affairs. An absolute privilege is similar to sovereign immunity but not entirely the same. Citing an absolute privilege is a defense to a claim rather than an argument that a claim cannot be brought.
Public officials may assert an absolute privilege defense to a defamation claim, but qualified privilege and other defenses may also apply.
Members of the legislative branch, such as the U.S. Congress, also have an absolute privilege that shields them against defamation claims. The text of the U.S. Constitution supports this privilege, which extends to statements during speeches or debates that may not be related to specific legislation.
The absolute privilege for the judicial branch has received less attention but is generally similar in scope. Judges can make statements that harm the reputations of others, even when they know that the statements are false and intend to cause harm. The privilege extends to statements that may not be essential or relevant to a legal matter.