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Fault is a constitutional prerequisite for defamation liability. Public officials and public figures must establish a higher degree of fault. They must prove that the defendant published a defamatory falsehood with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
Appellee news reporter voluntarily covered the developments which surrounded the federal governments' raid on the Branch Dividian compound in Texas. Appellee was one of only two reporters within the compound during the raid and offered comments on his involvement and the dangerous activity that he had undertaken and survived. When various news organizations publicly questioned whether appellee's involvement may have hindered efforts by the federal government, appellee filed a defamation action against appellant, a television broadcast company. Appellant filed a motion for summary disposition, which was denied by the trial court. The appellate court affirmed that ruling. Appellant filed a petition for review, arguing that summary judgment was proper because appellee was a public figure, and as a matter of law, appellant did not broadcast its reports with actual malice.
1) Under the circumstances, could the appellee be considered a public figure?
2) As a public figure, did the appellee prove that the appellant broadcast its reports with actual malice?
The supreme court accepted appellant's petition for review and reversed. The court held that appellee, who voluntarily became a main player in a public controversy, was a limited purpose public figure. Because the allegedly defamatory statement involved this public controversy, appellee had to establish actual malice to support his defamation claim, and he failed to do so. The court rendered a judgment in favor of appellant and ordered that appellee take nothing.