Thursday, March 14, 2013

Defamation: Who is a Public Figure?

An easily recognized public figure
I've used several posts to talk about the complicated law regarding defamation and public figures.  It is an important determination because in most states, it determines whether the strignet test set out in New York Times v. Sullivan applies. But just who is a public figure?

Unfortunately it is not an easy question to answer.  There is no clear definition.  Moreover, court decisions vary as to who is considered a public figure.

We can identify a couple of principles.  The general rule divides subject into public officials, general purpose public figures, limited purpose public figures and private persons.  But there is no black and white dividing line.  Borrowing from a recent popular book title, the demarcation is closer to "fifty shades of gray."  

Public officials generally means just that - holders of public office.  Congressmen, judges, sheriffs.  Pretty clear, right?  How about the local library board, or even the local head librarian? 

 Public figures generally includes those persons who voluntarily immerse themselves in public affairs.  Candidates for public office, heads of public affairs organizations (such as the N.R.A., NAACP), movie stars and other entertainers are generally found to fall within this classification.  This means that they are public figures for basically anything that is written about them.

But how far down the totem pole does that go?  How about the local police officer?  A coach?  A community organizer? Members of a regional band?  A writer?

To deal with this issue - at least to a point - the courts have created the category of Limited Purpose Public Figure.  This is a person who becomes involved in specific public issues.  Statements made about a limited purpose public figure related to the specific issue in which that person is involved will have the full protections of the New York Times v. Sullivan standard. But statements outside that area will not.

Example:  Sam, a local activist for the elderly, seeks funding from the city counsel for a shelter.

Case 1:  An article reports that Sam obtained funds for a shelter for the elderly in another state, and that he pocketed the money and the shelter was never built. The story clearly relates to the issue in which Sam is a limited purpose public figure. The writer has the protection of the New York Times standard.  The statement is false, but there is no liability unless the writer acted with constitutional malice - that is, knowledge of falsity or subjective awareness of probable falsity.

Case 2:  An article reports that Sam has been cheating on his wife and that he has three mistresses on the side.  The statement is false.  But this time there is liability.  Because Sam is a limited purpose public figure, stories about his personal life do not fall within the constitutional protection of the New York Times standard.  For purposes of these statements, he is a private person and need only prove "fault" - that is negligence - on the part of the writer, and to do so only by a preponderance of the evidence.  This is a MUCH easier standard and burden of proof.

This may seem esoteric "lawyer-speak", but the fight over whether the plaintiff is a public figure or private person is often the key battleground in defamation cases.

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