Suppose the New York Times writes "Sources say the celebrity John Doe raped his daughter" and they truly found two anonymous people (i.e., two sources) beforehand with that claim.

How responsible is the company in civil court if the claim is false?

Of course, the company will lose readers as its reputation for finding good sources falls, but I'm wondering how egregious of a statement would be permitted before New York civil law would punish it further.

I assume the company would have civil liability if they knew the claim was false and simply had knowingly found two liars, right?

But, if the company had the tiniest suspicion of truth, are they instead protected from libel? It seems the news is quite free to propagate rumors, so I'd like to know the limit. Are there precedents of libel like this where the publisher never actually lied?


1 Answer 1


For a public figure in , the standard is actual malice: “that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

A newspaper can be negligent in checking its information, but it can’t be reckless. It would be reckless for a newspaper to publish a claim that I made about person X without them verifying that I actually know person X, could have actual knowledge of the claim and could provide reasonable support for my claim if they are going to attribute me as a “source” because the word implies that I know what I’m talking about. If they are going to use my name, then they are not providing any truth weight of their own.

  • In my specific example to make sure I understand, the company could lose a libel suit if it had also interviewed the daughter who vehemently denied the claim, but then had left this denial out of the publication, right? Do you also have any actual precedent examples where a company was found guilty of libel? I'm not aware of guilty precedents, but they would help to understand the somewhat arbitrary threshold for "recklessness" towards a public figure.
    – bobuhito
    Jul 13, 2019 at 13:28
  • By the way, a Twitter precedent would be interesting, but it is probably too early to ask for them. This article from late 2017 makes me suspect that no guilty verdicts (ignoring out-of-court settlements) have ever come in favor of a public figure over a tweet: minclaw.com/how-to-report-slander-on-twitter
    – bobuhito
    Jul 13, 2019 at 13:39
  • @bobuhito Anyway, the claim that "sources say the celebrity John Doe raped his daughter" is not false.
    – phoog
    Jul 14, 2019 at 3:36
  • Claim = "the celebrity John Doe raped his daughter" = FALSE (I still think this is all clear in my question)
    – bobuhito
    Jul 14, 2019 at 12:45
  • @bobuhito actually the claim is that " sources say ...." OTOH, if the NYT had no source (even if anon ) that would be malice
    – BobE
    Jul 15, 2019 at 23:48

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