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Only a knowing or reckless falsehood, therefore, will provide grounds for a public official to seek compensation for defamation. Accordingly, actual malice is a subjective standard. A plaintiff must prove that the defendant published the statement despite actually knowing it was false or harboring a high degree of awareness of probable falsity. This standard requires much more than a failure to exercise ordinary care. Recklessness is not measured by whether a reasonably prudent man would have published, or would have investigated before publishing. Rather, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.
In April 2019, the television news program CBS This Morning broadcast interviews with two women who accused Justin Fairfax, plaintiff, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, of sexual assault. Plaintiff adamantly denied both women's allegations. Although he admitted that both sexual encounters occurred, he claimed they were entirely consensual and he did not force either woman to do anything. Plaintiff demanded that CBS retract the interviews, and CBS refused, subsequently plaintiff sued CBS Corporation and CBS Broadcasting, Inc. (collectively, CBS), defendants, for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress under Virginia law. The district court granted CBS's motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety but denied CBS's motion for attorney's fees and costs. Both parties appealed.
May the plaintiff, as public official, seek redress for alleged defamation under Virginia law?
No. The court affirmed district court’s judgment.
The court found that plaintiff alleged nothing to suggest that the defendant reported the women's stories with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity and because plaintiff did not sufficiently allege actual malice, he failed to state a claim for defamation and the appellate court need not consider the other elements of this cause of action.