A U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibits public officials (like government officers) from suing for defamation when someone carelessly or mistakenly makes false factual statements about them. This ruling, based on the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and the press, makes it more difficult for public officials to sue for defamation. They must prove not only that a factual statement was wrong, but that the writer or speaker acted with "actual malice," meaning malicious intent or reckless disregard for the truth.
Later Supreme Court decisions expanded the actual malice rule to include not only public officials but "public figures" like entertainment celebrities, famous athletes, and other people and businesses in the public spotlight. (See, for example, Curtis Publ'g. Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967).)