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Actual malice in United States law is a legal requirement imposed upon public officials or public figures when they file suit for libel (defamatory printed communications). Unlike other individuals who are less well-known to the general public, public officials and public figures are held to a higher standard for what they must prove.

This term was created by the Supreme Court in its landmark 1964 ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in which the Court held that:

"The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a Federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with “actual malice”—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." (emphasis added).

This term was not newly invented for the Sullivan case, but was a term from existing libel law. In many jurisdictions proof of "actual malice" was required in order for punitive damages to be awarded, or for other increased penalties. Since proof of the writer's malicious intentions is hard to ascertain, proof that the writer knowingly published a falsehood was generally accepted as proof of malice, under the assumption that only a malicious person would knowingly publish a falsehood. In Sullivan case, the Supreme Court adopted this term and gave it constitutional significance, at the same time defining it in terms of the proof which had previously been usual.[1]

Actual malice is different from common law malice which indicates spite or ill-will. It may also differ from "actual malice" as defined in state libel law, as was confirmed in the case of Carol Burnett v. National Enquirer, Inc. (1983). Also see HERBERT v. LANDO, (1979) 441 U.S. 153 (1979)441 U.S. 153 fn 12; "The existence of actual malice may be shown in many ways. As a general rule, any competent evidence, either direct or circumstantial, can be resorted to, and all the relevant circumstances surrounding the transaction may be shown, provided they are not too remote, including threats, prior or subsequent defamations, subsequent statements of the defendant, circumstances indicating the existence of rivalry, ill will, or hostility between the parties, facts tending to show a reckless disregard of the plaintiff's rights..."

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  1. ^ Lewis, Anthony (1991). Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. pp. 147, 148, 149, 151, 158 166–68, 172–73. ISBN 0-679-73939-4.