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The "reckless disregard" necessary to prove actual malice cannot be prescribed by one all-encompassing test. Case-by-case adjudication is the preferred method for determining whether a given factual situation comes within the ambit of actual malice. Although actual malice is a very difficult standard for any plaintiff to meet, simple reliance upon someone else's statement does not absolve an author or publisher of liability. Recklessness may be found where there are obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of the informant or the accuracy of his reports. A publisher cannot feign ignorance or profess good faith when there are clear indications present which bring into question the truth or falsity of defamatory statements. As long as the sources of the libelous information appeared reliable, and the defendant had no doubts about its accuracy, the courts have held the evidence of malice insufficient to support a jury verdict, even if a more thorough investigation might have prevented the admitted error.
Plaintiff James W. Fitzgerald was the subject of an article published by defendants, Penthouse International, Ltd., Meredith Printing Corp., Meredith Corp., Bob Guccione, and Steve Chapple. The topic of the article was the use of dolphins for military purposes. The plaintiff contended that there was no public controversy concerning the use of trained dolphins by the military and that he did not thrust himself into the public eye with respect to this subject. After a thorough review of the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the district court granted summary judgment for the publisher, holding that a public controversy existed and that the plaintiff was a public figure for the purposes of that controversy. The district court further found that the publisher did not act with malice. Plaintiff appealed.
Was the grant of summary judgment in favor of the publisher proper under the circumstances?
The court on appeal affirmed the district court's holding that the subject was a public figure with respect to the topic of the article. The court held however, that there was a substantial question of material fact as to whether the publisher acted with actual malice. The court held that the subject was a limited-purpose public figure because he thrust himself into a position of special prominence with respect to the controversy in the publication. The court held that there was evidence in the record that raised a substantial question of material fact as to whether the publisher had obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of the informant on whom they relied for the allegedly libelous part of the article. Because the subject presented a factual question as to the reliability of the publisher's information, entry of summary judgment for the publisher was reversed.