• Key point. Statements made about a "public figure" ordinarily cannot be defamatory unless made with malice. Malice means either a knowledge that the statements were false, or a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This is a difficult standard to prove, meaning that public figures rarely succeed in suing others for defamation. Religious leaders are not necessarily public figures.
A New York court ruled that a religious teacher was not a "public figure" and therefore could more easily sue an organization that allegedly defamed him in one of its publications. A nonprofit organization existed to provide education and support to women who are victims of sexual abuse. One of its representatives allegedly mailed letters to several members of a religious organization informing them that a number of their religious leaders had "sexually coerced and exploited" scores of women during the previous twenty five years. One leader sued the organization for defamation. The organization claimed that a religious leader is a "public figure," and as such cannot establish defamation without proving "malice." In this context, malice means that a person making a statement either knew that it was false, or made it with a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity. Since it is often very difficult for public figures to prove malice, they seldom are successful in pursuing defamation claims. The court concluded that the religious leader was not a public figure: "There is no proof that [the religious leader] has achieved general fame or notoriety or assumed a role of especial prominence in the affairs of society." Further, the leader had not "voluntarily injected himself into the vortex of the particular public controversy at issue in order to influence the outcome and thus is not a limited issue public figure." Sovik v. Healing Network, 665 N.Y.S.2d 997 (A.D. 1997). [ Defamation]