FAN 126.1 (First Amendment News) Court denies cert in “public official” defamation case
The question presented in Armstrong v. Thompson was “whether all (or nearly all) law enforcement offic- ers are “public officials” under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).” Today the Court denied cert. in that case.
This case presents a recurring First Amendment question: whether a garden-variety law enforcement officer, with little or no role in setting public policy, must establish “actual malice” to recover for harm caused by tortious statements. A number of Circuits and state courts of last resort—where many issues relating to the First Amendment and defamation are decided—have held that every law enforcement officer is a “public official” under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). Accordingly, those courts, including the court below, require each and every law enforcement officer to show “actual malice” before recovering for any tort carried out through speech. In this case, despite an otherwise-error-free trial resulting in a jury verdict establishing that re-spondent had committed an established common-law tort, the court of appeals joined those courts and reversed on federal constitutional grounds after determining that Armstrong was a public official and that he had failed to prove “actual malice.” App. 14a-21a.
This Court should grant review. The rule applied below conflicts with decisions in other lower courts; “distort[s] the plain meaning of the ‘public official’ category beyond all recognition,” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974); and deprives hundreds of thousands of individuals of the ability to obtain redress for needless, vendetta-driven attacks on their reputations and interference with their livelihoods.