Celebrities! They're Just Like Us … Except When It Comes to Defamation Cases

by Carina Jenkins J.D.
Illustration of a celebrity with larger burden of proof than regular person

Reviewed by Katelynne Shepard

Whether you love or hate celebrity news, you may wonder how magazines or websites can legally share so much gossip.

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These stories may have limited fact-checking, and publishers probably couldn't write these stories about average citizens. Public figures, such as politicians and celebrities, must meet a higher legal standard when suing for defamation of character.

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What Is Defamation?

Defamation is a legal term for the act of making untrue statements that damage a third party's reputation. However, defamation cases can be tricky to win, especially for celebrities and other public figures.

What Is a Public Figure vs. a Private Figure in a Defamation Case?

In a case named New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court established two categories of plaintiffs in defamation cases: public and private figures.

Private Figures

Private figures are people who haven't sought fame or inserted themselves into discussions on highly public or contentious issues. Most people fall into this category.

Private figures only need to show that the publisher of a defamatory statement was negligent, although state laws may impose higher standards.

Public Figures

Public figures generally include people who:

Public figures include elected officials, celebrities and others who have sought general fame. The law treats people who have achieved pervasive fame or notoriety as public figures, even if the statements in question are about their relationships or personal lives.

The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment requires public figures to meet a higher legal standard in defamation cases, and public figures must prove actual malice by the defendant.

Limited Public Figures

Defining a public figure isn't always easy; the law also recognizes limited public figures. Limited public figures are people who are famous or influential concerning a specific topic but not in general. Unlike other celebrities, the law may treat these people as public figures in some instances and private figures in others.

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Proving Defamation of Character

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires a higher legal burden on public figure plaintiffs in defamation cases. Public figures must prove their case with clear and convincing evidence and demonstrate that the defendant acted with "actual malice." Acting with actual malice means the defendant knew a statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

On the other hand, there's no such constitutional requirement if the plaintiff is a private figure. States can create and impose defamation laws, which typically impose much lower legal burdens on private figures. In many places, private figures only need to show that a defendant was negligent in making a defamatory statement.

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What Is the “Burden of Proof”?

The burden of proof is the standard of evidence a party must prove to win a court case. Depending on the type of case, the burden may be:

  • By a preponderance of the evidence
  • Clear and convincing evidence
  • Beyond a reasonable doubt

A preponderance of the evidence is the lowest burden and merely requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that something is "more likely than not." However, because evidence often involves subjective elements, such as determining the credibility of a witness, a judge or jury must ultimately decide whether a party met the required burden of proof.

Generally, in defamation cases, the burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence if the plaintiff is a public figure. Private figures typically only need to meet the lower burden of a preponderance of the evidence.

Why Do Public Figures Have a Higher Burden of Proof When Bringing a Defamation Claim?

In most cases, the law aims to treat people equally. So why are defamation cases different? The Supreme Court has explained that the First Amendment must protect a person's ability to discuss people or issues that are of public concern. Public debate and discussion of influential people and issues are vital for free speech and healthy democracy.

The elevated standard applies to governmental officials and those running for high offices, as well as widely known or influential celebrities. The rationale is that celebrities have sought the spotlight by choice and have the power to influence the public. Courts have ruled that people must be free to discuss celebrities due to their influence over the thoughts and actions of others.

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