The defense of "fair comment" in the U.S. since 1964 has largely been replaced by the ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), (U.S. Supreme Court). This case relied on the issue of actual malice, which involves the defendant making a statement known at the time to be false, or which was made with a "reckless disregard" of whether the statement was true or false. If "actual malice" cannot be shown, the defense of "fair comment" is then superseded by the broader protection of the failure by the plaintiff to show "actual malice."
Each state writes its own laws of defamation, and the laws and previously decided precedents in each state vary. In many states, (including Alabama where the case of Times v. Sullivan originated), the "fair comment" defense requires that the "privilege of 'fair comment' for expressions of opinion depends on the truth of the facts upon which the comment is based" according to U.S Supreme Court Justice Brennan who wrote the ruling in Times v. Sullivan.
It is still technically possible to rely on the common law defense of "fair comment" without referring to the "actual malice" standard set by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) but that would only be a likely course of action when the defendant is absolutely sure that the facts upon which the opinion of the defendant was based were true, or that any falsehoods are not defamatory. If those facts are not absolutely true (and the actual malice standard is not taken into account) than the defendant could be sued by the plaintiff for damages, although the plaintiff would need to establish to the satisfaction of a jury that the statements were defamatory, and that the defandant published or made them.
The actual malice standard was set by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case New York Times v. Sullivan. This case is a powerful precedent which has a major impact on defamation cases in the state courts.
"Actual malice" removes the requirement of being faultless in the reporting of the facts by the defendant. (Under the law prior to this decision any false statement could, if found to be defamatory, be grounds for damages.) Instead it raises the question of whether factual errors were made in good faith. "Actual malice" means then that the defendant intentionally made false statements of alleged facts, or recklessly failed to verify alleged facts when any reasoanble person would have checked. If it is held that the defendant made intentionally false statements of fact, that will form a powerful argument that any statements of opinion based upon those facts were made with malice. If the plaintiff can prove malice on the part of the defendant the common law defense of "fair comment" is defeated.
The "actual malice" standard only applies when the statement is about a "public official", or a "public figure", or in some cases about a "matter of public interest". When it does apply it offers so much more protection to the defendant that it would be very rare for the defendant to assert "fair comment" instead. When the allegedly defamatory statement is about a purely private person, who is not a "public figure" in any way, the defandant may need to resort to the defence of "fair comment" instead. Also, the "actual malice" standard is specifically part of United States law, derived from the U.S. Constitution. The defense of "fair comment" is a part of the older common law, and so might apply in non-U.S. jurisdictions which share the common-law tradition, such as the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth.
In Canada, for something to constitute fair comment, the comment must be on a matter of public interest (excluding gossip), a fair and honest expression of the author's opinion, based on known and provable facts, and with no actual malice underlying it. The cardinal test of whether a statement is fair comment is whether the author honestly believed the opinion, and whether it could be drawn from the known facts. It should also be obvious that the comment is an opinion and is not purporting to be a fact (Crawford 2002, pp. 48-52). (See Chernesky v. Armadale Publications Ltd.  6 W.W.R. 618 (S.C.C.))
In libel action by parental opponent of gay lifestyles curriculum in British Columbia schools against radio "shock jock" who seemed to compare her to such historic rabble-rousers as Hitler, George Wallace, Orval Faubus and others, Canadian Supreme Court upholds judgment for Defendants based on "fair comment" defense.
Jul 01, 2008; Kari Simpson (Plaintiff) belonged to an organization which opposed the placement and use of materials in schools showing families...