Libel and Slander

No suit for defamation without proof of ‘legal malice,’ court rules.

Church Law and Tax 1996-11-01

Libel and Slander

Key point. Persons who are “public figures” cannot be victims of defamation unless a defamatory remark is made with “legal malice,” meaning that the person making the remark knew it was false or made it with a reckless disregard for the truth. Some courts have ruled that ministers are public figures, making it more difficult for them to demonstrate they have been defamed.

A New York court ruled that a prominent minister could not sue a newspaper for an allegedly defamatory article, since he was unable to prove “legal malice.” Minister Louis Farrakhan sued a newspaper claiming that an article accusing him of complicity in the assassination of Malcolm X was defamatory. A court dismissed the lawsuit. It concluded that Farrakhan was a public figure; that public figures cannot sue for defamation unless they prove that the defamatory remark was made with legal malice; that legal malice means either knowledge that the remark was false or a reckless disregard to its truthfulness; and, that Farrakhan failed to prove that the newspaper was guilty of legal malice. The court noted that none of the following allegations amounted to legal malice: (1) failure to investigate and report on other accounts of the assassination; (2) failure to report on every aspect of the assassination; or (3) an unsubstantiated assertion that the newspaper relied on sources that were “dubious, historically uncreditable, revisionist works. Farrakhan v. N.Y.P. Holdings, Inc., 638 N.Y.S.2d 1002 (Sup. 1995). [ Defamation]

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