Substantial Truth Doctrine
The substantial truth doctrine is an important defense in defamation law that allows individuals to avoid liability if the gist of their statement was true.
Defamation is a false statement of fact that harms another’s reputation. It is rooted in the idea that people have a right to their good name and reputation. To constitute defamation, the statement or statements must be false. In other words, falsity generally is a required element of a defamation claim.
Courts examine statements as a whole in determining truth
Sometimes, individuals make mistakes or do not utter 100% truths. The law does not equate every factual inaccuracy as a false statement. To require literal truth of every statement would lead to too much self-censorship and a flood of defamation lawsuits. This led to the adoption of the so-called substantial truth doctrine, which has roots in both common law equity and the First Amendment freedom of the press.
Oftentimes, the law examines the statements as a whole, the heart of the matter, and considers whether the “gist” of the statements are substantially true. This concept is known as the substantial truth doctrine.
Courts have used substantial truth doctrine to dismiss defamation claims
The application of the doctrine is considered a question of law and, thus, can be used successfully to ward off defamation suits.
Courts have used the substantial truth doctrine in myriad ways to dismiss defamation claims.
For example, a Detroit newspaper said that an African-American political candidate said “I hate the race” when referring to Caucasians. In actuality, the politician had said, “I don’t like the race.” The Michigan Court of Appeals held in Collins v. Detroit Free Press (Mich. Ct. App. 2001) that those two statements were close enough to merit application of the substantial truth doctrine.
Supreme Court: Libel law ‘overlooks minor inaccuracies’
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the substantial truth doctrine in passing in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine (1991), a case focused on whether a reporter’s alleged alteration of a subject’s quotes amounted to actual malice in defamation law. The Court explained that the common law of libel “overlooks minor inaccuracies and focuses upon substantial truth.”
The Court further explained that substantial truth essentially means that a statement is not false if the substance, the gist or sting of the statement is true.
Substantial truth doctrine promotes First Amendment, reduces risk of self-censorship
The primary inquiry in considering the defense of substantial truth is whether the allegedly libelous statement as published would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that of a truthful statement.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explains: “A statement is substantially true if, even if not literally true, it does not create an impression in the mind of the listener more damaging than a literally true statement would.”
Scholar Meiring de Villiers lauds the substantial truth doctrine, writing that it “promotes of the First Amendment by reducing the risk of self-censorship, yet preserves defamation law’s reputational protection and compensatory function” (123).
This article was originally published in 2019. David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017).
By David Hudson
“Truth” is an absolute defense against defamation. See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), and Time Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 411 (1967). Consequently, a plaintiff has to provide convincing evidence of a defamatory statement’s falsity in order to prove defamation.
The law does not require that a statement must be perfectly accurate in every conceivable way to be considered “true.” Courts have said that some false statements must be protected for the wider purpose of allowing the dissemination of truthful speech. The resulting doctrine is known as “substantial truth.” Under the substantial truth doctrine, minor factual inaccuracies will be ignored so long as the inaccuracies do not materially alter the substance or impact of what is being communicated. In other words, only the “gist” or “sting” of a statement must be correct.
The substantial truth defense is particularly powerful because a judge will often grant summary judgment in favor of a defendant (thus disposing of the case before it goes to trial) if the defendant can show that the statement the plaintiff is complaining about is substantially true, making the defense a quick and relatively easy way to get out of a long (and potentially expensive) defamation case.
Substantial truth can also be a flashpoint for libel cases involving public figures and officials who must show actual malice by the defendant in order to recover. In Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, 501 U.S. 496 (1991), the plaintiff tried to argue that inaccurate quotations were evidence of actual malice. The Supreme Court refused to adopt such a stringent rule, noting the difficulty of taking notes and translating from recordings and the need to edit a speaker’s comments into a coherent statement. The Court stated:
We conclude that a deliberate alteration of the words uttered by a plaintiff does not equate with knowledge of falsity for purposes of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., unless the alteration results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement. (citations omitted)
The Court went on to note the use of quotation marks to directly attribute inaccurate statements to the speaker “bears in a most important way on [this] inquiry, but it is not dispositive in every case.” Generally speaking, a publisher is given more leeway for inaccuracies when he is interpreting his sources than when he is purporting to be providing a “direct account of events that speak for themselves.” Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279 (1971).
Some examples of statements that courts have found to be “substantially true”:
- A statement that a boxer tested positive for cocaine, when actually he had tested positive for marijuana. See Cobb v. Time Inc. 24 Media L. Rep. 585 (M.D. Tenn 1995).
- A statement that an animal trainer beat his animals with steel rods, when actually he had beaten them with wooden rods. See People for Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Berosini, 895 P.2d 1269 (Nev. 1995).
- A statement that a father sexually assaulted his stepdaughter 30-50 times, when the stepdaughter testified he had done so only 8 times. See Koniak v. Heritage Newspapers, Inc., 198 Mich. App. 577 (1993).
- A statement that a man was sentenced to death for six murders, when in fact he was only sentenced to death for one. See Stevens v. Independent Newspapers, Inc., 15 Media L. Rep. 1097 (Del. Super. Ct. 1998).
- A statement that Terry Nichols was arrested after the Oklahoma City Bombing, when actually he had only been held as a material witness. See Nichols v. Moore, 396 F. Supp. 2d 783 (E.D. Mich. 2005).
- A statement that a man was charged with sexual assault, when actually he had only been arrested but not arraigned. See Rouch v. Enquirer & News of Battle Creek, 440 Mich. 238 (1992).