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Defamation

Under Alabama law as applied in this case, a publication is ‘libelous per se’ if the words ‘tend to injure a person * * * in his reputation’ or to ‘bring (him) into public contempt’; the trial court stated that the standard was met if the words are such as to ‘injure him in his public office, or impute misconduct to him in his office, or want of official integrity, or want of fidelity to a public trust * * *.’ The jury must find that the words were published ‘of and concerning’ the plaintiff, but where the plaintiff is a public official his place in the governmental hierarchy is sufficient evidence to support a finding that his reputation has been affected by statements that reflect upon the agency of which he is in charge. Once ‘libel per se’ has been established, the defendant has no defense as to stated facts unless he can persuade the jury that they were true in all their particulars. [Cc] His privilege of ‘fair comment’ for expressions of opinion depends on the truth of the facts upon which the comment is based. [Cc] Unless he can discharge the burden of proving truth, general damages are presumed, and may be awarded without proof of pecuniary injury. A showing of actual malice is apparently a prerequisite to recovery of punitive damages, and the defendant may in any event forestall a punitive award by a retraction meeting the statutory requirements. Good motives and belief in truth do not negate an inference of malice, but are relevant only in mitigation of punitive damages if the jury chooses to accord them weight. [Cc].

The question before us is whether this rule of liability, as applied to an action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct, abridges the freedom of speech and of the press that is guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

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