Matters of Public Concern

Statements about matters of public concern are generally granted greater protection from liability for defamation. A common justification for affording statements on matters of public concern great protection from liability for defamation is that a well-informed society is a healthy society. Without this protection, courts have reasoned, the media and people would self-censor depriving society of much-needed information.

There are two general approaches to determining if a heightened burden of proof applies to a given defamation suit. The first approach focuses on the subject matter of the statement. In this approach, the primary focus is on whether the allegedly defamatory statement concerned a “public” or “private” matter.

The second approach focuses on the status of the person claiming to be defamed. In this approach, the primary focus is on whether the plaintiff is a “public” or “private” figure. As we saw in Sullivan, some subject matter inquiry is usually involved in determining the status of the individual.

In the seminal defamation case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court discussed the value of vigorous debate on public issues. Its analysis started with a recognition of “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open…” Justice Brennan, who authored the majority opinion, wrote that some erroneous statements “must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need … to survive’.” Courts provide this protection by requiring a heightened burden of proof in certain defamation actions.

Development of the Doctrine

Justice Frank Murphy was perhaps the first Supreme Court Justice to articulate the concept that the First Amendment afforded greater protection to matters of public interest. In Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940), Justice Murphy wrote that “The freedom of speech and of the press guaranteed by the Constitution embraces at the least the liberty to discuss publicly and truthfully all matters of public concern without previous restraint or fear of subsequent punishment…” Many subsequent opinions echoed this concept without examining exactly what the phrase meant.

The Supreme Court took on that challenge in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia Inc., 403 U.S. 29 (1971). In Rosenbloom, the Supreme Court was not focused on the notoriety of the plaintiff but on the newsworthy subject matter of the statement. The Court extended the “actual malice” standard to statements about matters of public concern—even where the plaintiff is a private figure. According to the Court, “if a matter is a subject of public or general interest, it cannot suddenly become less so merely because a private individual did not ‘voluntarily’ choose to become involved. The public’s primary interest is in the event; the public focus on the conduct of the participant and the content, effect, and significance of the conduct, not the participant’s prior anonymity or notoriety.”

The most recent development to the matters of public concern doctrine came in 2011 when the Supreme Court decided Snyder v. Phelps, 131 S.Ct. 1207 (2011). Although Snyder was an intentional infliction of emotional distress case, the main issue in the case—what constitutes a matter of public concern—has direct impact on defamation law. At issue was whether statements made by members of the Westboro Baptist Church at the funeral of Marine Matthew Snyder related to matters of public concern and thus were protected by the First Amendment. To determine whether a statement relates to a matter of public concern, the Court created a two-part test. A statement related to a matter of public concern if: (1) the statement related “to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community,” or (2) the statement related to “a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.”

What Constitutes a Matter of Public Concern?

Establishing that a statement relates to a matter of public concern requires both a highly fact-intensive inquiry and an in-depth knowledge of First Amendment jurisprudence. The success of this defense against defamation requires proving that the statement meets one of the two elements announced in Snyder. This task becomes most difficult when proving that the statement related to a “concern to the community” or “a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public.” A skilled attorney will use existing case law to establish what subjects are generally accepted as being of interest or concern to the community and then demonstrate how the present statement falls into one or more of those accepted categories.

The attorneys at Nationwide Consumer Rights have decades of experience in First Amendment law and defamation defense. We are dedicated to protecting the rights of free speech and defending our clients against lawsuits which may jeopardize these rights. As skilled attorneys with the most up-to-date knowledge of defamation law, we are well equipped to handle any case. Conveniently located in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago, Illinois, we have successfully litigated cases for clients all over the Chicago area, including Indiana and Wisconsin. To schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys, you can email us or give us a call at 630-333-0000.

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