Public Figure Doctrine Law and Legal Definition

According to the public figure doctrine, prominent public persons must prove actual malice on the part of the news media in order to prevail in a libel lawsuit. Actual malice is the knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of whether a statement is true or false. The public figure doctrine makes it possible for publishers to provide information on public issues to the debating public, undeterred by the threat of liability.

The public figure doctrine as it relates to defamation actions had its origin in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (U.S. 1964). “… First Amendment requires that a public official must prove that he was libeled with malicious intent in order to recover. A finding of malicious intent requires a showing that the defendant published the defamatory article with actual knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for its truth. The public figure doctrine is an attempt to strike a balance between the First Amendment interest in a press free from the self-censorship considerations arising from the existence of libel laws and the state interest in providing civil remedies for defamatory falsehood. The public figure doctrine recognizes that the state interest in protecting certain persons classed as public figures is less than in the case of purely private individuals.” [Schultz v. Reader's Digest Ass'n, 468 F. Supp. 551, 555 (D. Mich. 1979)[.