Public officials have an uphill battle when seeking to sue media outlets for defamation. The public has a legitimate interest in the workings of government and reporters have the right and privilege to communicate information about the actions of public officials so that the government can be held accountable. Consequently, the law has evolved to make it difficult for public officials to sue media organizations for libel, even if a news story about them contains inaccuracies. Specifically, public officials can’t prevail in a defamation action based on their official conduct unless they can prove, with clear and convincing evidence, that the false story was published about them with actual malice, generally defined as knowledge of falsity (or, at a minimum, reckless disregard of the truth). Private individuals, by contrast, generally are not required to meet this standard. The high bar for public figures is designed to strike a balance between the private right against unfair attacks on one’s reputation and the First Amendment right of writers and publishers to share information on matters of public interest and concern. A recent decision of the Eastern District of Virginia shows how difficult it can be for public officials to meet their burden of proof.
The case of Joseph E. Preston v. City Council of the City of Petersburg involved a dispute between the City of Petersburg and its former City Attorney, Joseph Preston. The basic facts, according to the summary-judgment opinion, are as follows. Preston was the City Attorney from October 2016 to September 2018. On September 4, 2018, while Preston was on vacation, the City Council held a special meeting in his absence and passed two motions. One motion terminated Preston’s employment, effective immediately. The second motion stated that Preston would be allowed back into City Hall to retrieve his personal belongings “only by appointment and only if accompanied by a police officer.” The reasons for the firing and the restrictions on Preston’s ability to enter City Hall are not clear.