Here is an excerpt from this article in the New York Times:

The Supreme Court established the First Amendment principles that govern the country’s libel laws in 1964, with its unanimous decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. In that ruling, the court said that public officials had to prove that false statements were made with “actual malice,” meaning news organizations had to have knowingly published a falsehood or published it with “reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

The standard, later extended to include public figures, set a high bar for libel and meant that people like Mr. Trump — both a public figure and soon-to-be public official — would have a very, very difficult time winning a libel lawsuit.

Is it correct that the Supreme Court decided that it is illegal for public figures to knowingly state a falsehood? Are there any other laws/cases that shed light on this?

  • Your question is a bit confusing. In light of NYT, you might think that it's legal to make false statements about public figures. It is in fact illegal for anyone to make certain false statements (w.r.t. legal investigations).
    – user6726
    Nov 14, 2016 at 17:57
  • @user6726, so you're saying that it is illegal for a public figure to knowingly lie?
    – Daniel
    Nov 14, 2016 at 18:07
  • It is illegal for anyone to knowingly lie in a matter in the jurisdiction of the US government, 18 USC 1001.
    – user6726
    Nov 14, 2016 at 18:16
  • @user6726, is this ever punished in situations outside of false testimony in a court of law?
    – Daniel
    Nov 14, 2016 at 18:24
  • Yes, that's how Martha Stewart ended up in prison. Perjury is a separate crime.
    – user6726
    Nov 14, 2016 at 19:18

2 Answers 2



No, N.Y. Times v. Sullivan established the actual malice standard in the context of defamation. It is not illegal for a public figure to claim the sun revolves around the Earth unless some other law intervenes (maybe something fact-dependant like fraud or lying under oath).


Here's an example of how N.Y. Times would work in California. Under California law, slander, along with libel, are the defamation torts. See Cal. Civ. Code. § 44. The First Amendment limits California’s slander law by requiring public figures prove actual malice when they want to sue someone for defaming them. Khawar v. Globe Int’l, 19 Cal. 4th 254, 262 (1998). (The Supreme Court got involved in N.Y. Times in the first place because of the First Amendment implications on the States' defamation laws.)

In turn, "actual malice" means a statement was made "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false." Khawar, 19 Cal. 4th at 275 (citing N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279–80 (1964)). As to knowledge, California courts consider only actual—not constructive—knowledge. Comedy III Prods., Inc. v. Gary Saderup, Inc., 25 Cal. 4th 387, 398 (2001). In turn, actual knowledge "consists in express information of fact." I.E. Assoc. v. Safeco Title Ins. Co., 39 Cal. 3d 281, 285 (1985).

This is a bunch of lawyer-speak, but it basically sets up a pretty high bar for the public figure who is trying to prove defamation. Again, N.Y. Times doesn't have to do with barring public figures from making non-defamatory false statements. You'd have to look to other areas of law about false representations or lying under oath for a claim against the politician.

  • The Defense of Valor Act, which made it a crime to misrepresent having received military honors or rank, was held unconstitutional despite the fact that it criminalized a knowing false statement of fact. While false statements can be punished in some circumstances, in political contexts this is generally not the case (so that judges aren't put in the deciding the truth of a controversial question). There must be a particularized harm to the victim of the falsehood for it to be actionable (arguably really a strict reading of standing law informed by constitutional avoidance).
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2016 at 6:11
  • 1
    Many state laws on the books prohibit this kind of speech, but those laws are probably unconstitutional.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2016 at 6:12
  • REDOThe stolen valor case is U.S. v. Alvarez 132 S.Ct. 2537 (2012); a law review note (i.e. student written article) on it explores the issue. minnesotalawreview.org/articles/… Brown v. Hartlage, 456 U.S. 45 (1982) applied the NYT actual malice standard to political speech. Alvarez broadened that exception even to cases of actual malice. Accord Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876, 898–99 (2010) (“[P]olitical speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it, whether by design or inadvertence.”).
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2016 at 20:40
  • Also, although probably beside your point, Congress passed a new version of the Stolen Valor Act in 2013 after the Alvarez case.
    – Pat W.
    Nov 15, 2016 at 20:50
  • @Pat W. Fair point, although not very relevant to the larger issue.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2016 at 22:33

Is it correct that the Supreme Court decided that it is illegal for public figures to knowingly state a falsehood?

In the United States (unlike most other country) it is legal to say whatever you want EXCEPT when it is verbal action that is otherwise a crime. E.g., directing someone to commit and act that is a crime.

Libelous statements are not illegal in the United States. You can make libelous statements as much as you want as long as you compensate those affected for the injury that you cause.

If it were illegal for public figures to make false statements, the entire government would be in jail.

  • I'm trying to parse your first sentence: Did you mean to say, "In the U.S. it is legal to say whatever you want except when it is illegal?" Or something less tautological?
    – feetwet
    Nov 15, 2016 at 20:28
  • "Libelous statements are not illegal . . . You can make libelous statements as much as you want as long as you compensate those affected[.]" The U.S. Constitution does not forbid criminal libel statutes although actual malice must be established and political speech may be protected from criminal liability. Some states have such statutes although they aren't widely used. Colorado repealed its criminal libel statute just a few years ago because it wanted to, not because a court said it was invalid. See firstamendmentcenter.org/criminal-libel-statutes-state-by-state
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2016 at 22:35
  • Colorado repealed its criminal libel statute in 2012.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 15, 2016 at 22:41

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