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Police Defamation Suits Against Citizens Complaining of Police Misconduct

NCJ Number
St Louis University Law Journal Volume: 22 Dated: (1978) Pages: 676-693
A Weissberg
Date Published
18 pages
Public policy arguments surrounding police defamation suits against citizens are discussed, and relevant case law is discussed in relation to the New York Times v. Sullivan standard.
While police defamation actions against citizens are not yet commonplace, more and more police officers have turned to civil actions to discourage or defend themselves against citizen complaints of police misconduct. The use of defamation suits by police officers forces the courts to balance the interests of the right of the police officer to bring such a suit with the potential chilling effect these suits might have on the filing of citizen complaints. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved much of the conflict among the libel laws of the States regarding actions brought by criticized public officials against private citizens. The Court held that public officials are prohibited from recovering damages for defamatory falsehood relating to official conduct unless they prove that the statement was made with 'actual malice,' i.e., with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. Continued application of this standard already has had an adverse impact on the rate of success of police defamation suits. Still, it is the threat that a lawsuit might be filed, rather than the rate of success of such suits, that can be expected to have a chilling effect on the filing of citizen complaints. One possible solution to this effect would be the enactment of legislation forcing police plaintiffs to pay attorneys' fees to successful defendants. While inhibiting the citizen complainant who does not have a meritorious defense, this approach would not deter legitimate or good faith complaints. Ninety-seven footnotes are listed.