The Al Jazeera report that Peyton Manning’s wife received shipments of Human Growth Hormone has been much discussed the past several days. Peyton has said that any implication that he used the drug is a “complete fabrication” and that he is so angry that he’ll probably sue Al Jazeera.
My good friend Rick Cleveland has recently written that a good editor would have told the reporter to “Go back. Dig deeper. You need more sources. This won’t stand up. You’ve got one source and he’s recanted. You’ve got nothing. We can’t go with this.” Rick is correct. Had I been the broadcast’s entity’s attorney, I would have recommended the route Rick is suggesting. But the question now is a different one. The question now is whether Peyton can win a defamation case given the legal standards that exist. My answer is that I doubt he can win.
Let’s assume that the story turns out to be completely untrue. Many of us who have followed the Manning family for many years would like to believe that is the case. Even so, Peyton will have a tough time prevailing in a defamation case. The reason is that there is a very different standard in defamation cases for “public figures” than is true for ordinary citizens. That is because the United States Supreme Court long ago ruled that publishers should be protected in the “public figure” arena so as to promote public discussion of important issues.
Few would question that Peyton Manning is a “public figure”. His success as an NFL quarterback has brought with it great fame. In addition to his exploits on the field, he has been interviewed countless times and he even appears in commercials for various products.
As a “public figure”, Peyton would have to prove not only that the report was false, but also that the publisher either knew it was false or published the story in “reckless disregard” of whether it was true or not. In determining whether a story was broadcast or printed in “reckless disregard” of its truth, the Supreme Court has promulgated this test: “There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant entertained serious doubts as to the truth of its publication.” Among other things, there’s the problem of the pharmacist’s statements on tape even though he recanted after the broadcast. To prevail will be a huge hill for Peyton to climb.