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Legally Speaking: How could Arpaio win his libel lawsuit against NYT?

FILE - In this May 22, 2018 file photo, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks during a campaign event in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has filed a lawsuit against The New York Times and one of its writers, Michelle Cottle, over an op-ed article that was published.

Arpaio’s lawsuit centers around a claim of libel. He is asking the court order he be paid money for the damages he has sustained to his reputation, and those he will sustain, as well as money to punish the defendants.

Libel is one type of defamation which deals with the written word. Slander is another type that deals with the spoken word.

A lawsuit for libel involving a public figure is not an easy one to win. When a public figure is the alleged victim (the plaintiff), they have to prove the defendant acted with actual malice. In other words, it must be proven the defendant acted with an intent to hurt or damage, it is more than just knowledge that harm would occur. This additional requirement of actual malice is not necessary when it is a private person bringing the lawsuit.

To be successful on his libel claim, Arpaio will need to prove the article contained a false statement(s), that the statement(s) was published and was done so deliberately, with actual malice. New York explains this as “meant to maliciously degrade and humiliate.”

There are a couple defenses that the New York Times and its writer can assert. One is truth. If what the author wrote was true, then Arpaio will likely lose. Two other defenses the defendants could use are general reporting and opinion. In this country the media is allowed to report on events dealing with public persons and officials. In addition, Americans are allowed to have, and to give, their opinion under the First Amendment. This article was an op-ed, an opinion article. As such, this defense could be successful.

In the event Arpaio is successful proving the elements above, he still has to be able to show he was damaged and then he has to actually quantify the damage.

The complaint alleges his reputation, and political aspirations, have been harmed by the article and that he will continue to suffer harm. This is a very difficult thing to put into dollars and cents unless you can show you lost a business contract that had a set dollar amount or range. Oftentimes attorneys have to choose a number that is loosely based on other similar cases.

Bottom line #LegallySpeaking, Arpaio has an uphill battle in his libel lawsuit. That being said, we have all seen that Arpaio is a fighter and chances are he will keep fighting — even when the odds are against him.