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A "public figure" under the free-speech clause of the First Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. I, cannot maintain a suit for defamation unless it can prove that the defendant acted with "actual malice." This is a term of legal art that means not what it seems to mean but that the defendant either knew that the defamatory statement was false or was recklessly indifferent to whether it was true or false. Reckless indifference denotes the same state of mind that must be proved to establish liability for infringement of a federal right under color of state law or for violation of the federal mail fraud statute: knowledge by the defendant that there was a high risk of harm to the plaintiff coupled with a failure to take any feasible measure to counter the risk, either by investigating further to see whether there really is a risk and how serious it is or by desisting from the risky activity.
The Desnick eye clinic, which was conceded to be a “public figure,” brought a diversity suit against the ABC television network, a producer of ABC's program "PrimeTime Live," and the program's star reporter, Sam Donaldson, seeking damages for defamation allegedly committed by the defendants in connection with a 15-minute program segment that accused the clinic of tampering with an eye machine to downgrade patients' vision tests. Plaintiff appealed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the defendant.
Under the circumstances, could defendant be made liable for defamation?
The Court noted that in a defamation case by a public figure, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the author in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication, or acted with a high degree of awareness of probable falsity, or, while suspecting falsity, deliberately avoided taking steps that would have confirmed the suspicion. In other words, the defendant must either know that his published statement was probably false or, suspecting that it may be false, deliberately close his eyes to the possibility; this is the criminal sense of recklessness. In the case at bar, the Court found that there was nothing to indicate any recklessness on the part of defendant in crediting the informer's accusations regarding defendant clinic. The accusation of tampering was corroborated by the fact that defendant's investigation of plaintiff turned up evidence of unneeded surgery, alteration of patients' records to show they needed cataract surgery when they did not, diagnoses by clinic surgeons of cataract in testers with normal eyesight, and statements by former employees that almost everyone failed the glare test. Plaintiff did not show that if the state court record had been examined it would have impacted the informer's credibility. Accordingly, the grant of summary judgment was affirmed.