People often think that any false statement asserted about a person is defamatory. In fact, the law of defamation is complicated, and different standards apply to public figures and to private citizens outside of public life.
To successfully make a case of defamation in Maryland, you must establish that the accused defendant made a defamatory statement to a third person, that this statement was false, that the defendant was legally at fault in making the statement, and that the plaintiff suffered harm as a result of the statement’s publication. A statement is only “defamatory” if it tends to expose a person to public scorn, hatred, contempt, or ridicule, and thereby discourages the community from having a good opinion of, or associating with, the person that was the subject of the statement. Even if a statement is defamatory, a defendant still may raise what is known as a “qualified” or “conditional” privilege from being held responsible and thereby be excused for the defamation if the defense is proven.
One form of conditional privilege is the First Amendment privilege. The U.S. Supreme Court established decades ago that statements pertaining to public figures on matters of public concern are excepted from defamation liability, unless the speaker or writer had actual knowledge that the statement was false, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. This is a very high standard of proof and makes it very difficult for a public figure to win a defamation action.
Private citizens that are not public figures do not have to overcome this First Amendment privilege to prevail in a defamation action, but there are other privileges, arising under the common law, that may derail a defamation action brought against a private person. There is a “public interest” privilege, for example, permitting persons to communicate to public officials about matters that are within their public responsibility. There is a privilege to communicate with someone who shares a common interest or to make statements in defense of oneself, or in the interest of others. There is a “fair comment” privilege, and a privilege to make a fair and accurate report of public proceedings. The breadth of these common-law privileges is not precisely defined by case law.
On November 22, 2016, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a decision clarifying one aspect of defamation law: In cases of private defamation, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the falsity of the allegedly defamatory statement. If the defendant asserts a common law conditional privilege, the plaintiff also bears the burden of overcoming that privilege. The Court, in this recent case, has now clarified that the standard of proof that the plaintiff must meet in overcoming a conditional privilege is proof by a preponderance of the evidence. This decision establishes that a plaintiff in such a case need not meet the higher standard of overcoming a conditional privilege by clear and convincing evidence, which is required in some other states.