Answer To MBE Question From December 11th
(C) is correct.
Issue: Whether the newspaper is liable for defamation for publishing a false article about a public figure without malice or recklessness.
Rule: Defamation occurs when a false statement is spoken (slander) or written (libel) or any other form of communication of a false statement is made to a third person, if the communication holds plaintiff up to ridicule or scorn in the eyes of the public. Defamatory statements about public officials or public figures are afforded First Amendment protection. This means that the publisher of the statement is only liable if the statements are made with actual malice. Actual malice exists when the statement was made with (a) knowledge that the statement was false or (b) reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
Analysis: Here the newspaper printed an article about a public figure that was defamatory. It was a false statement that put the public figure in a negative light in the eyes of the public. However, the facts state that the newspaper did not know that the allegations were false, and moreover, that the newspaper followed established protocols in vetting the story and used reliable sources. Thus, malice cannot be established and the newspaper is protected under the First Amendment from charges of defamation.
(C) is correct because the article was not printed with actual malice and thus it is afforded protection under the First Amendment.
(A) is incorrect. Falsity alone is insufficient to establish liability when the First Amendment is invoked (i.e., the statement concerns a public figure or an issue of public concern).
(B) is incorrect because it is not relevant here that the conduct was private since it was a public figure.
(D) is incorrect. The newspaper did not have an absolute privilege. Defamation is absolutely privileged, even if made with malice, in the following situations, none of which are applicable here: (i) Judicial Proceedings; (ii) Executive Proceedings; (iii) Legislative Proceedings; (iv)“Compelled” Broadcast or Publication (i.e., where a radio or TV station is compelled to allow a speaker the use of the air, a newspaper compelled to print public notices, etc. Mass media are absolutely privileged in an action based on the content of the compelled publication); (v) Communications between spouses.