Public vs. Private Figures

When a person sues for defamation, the court considers more than just the type of defamation to determine whether the defendant is liable for his statement, and, if so, how much are the damages. The court must also consider who is doing the suing: a public figure or a private figure. The outcome of many defamation cases is determined on this issue alone.

The importance of the plaintiff’s status as a public or private figure was first addressed in 1964 in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). In that case, the plaintiff, a police official, sued the New York Times for allegedly making false statements about him. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court which balanced the plaintiff’s interest in protecting his reputation against the public’s interest in free debate of matters of politics. The Supreme Court ruled that, for a public figure to recover damages in a defamation case, he must prove not only that the statement was defamatory but also that it was made with actual malice. The Court reasoned that this heightened burden of proof was required by the First Amendment in order to ensure uninhibited debate on public issues, even when such debate includes “vehement, caustic, unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Public Figures

A public figure would be defined as anyone whose name has become a household name, such as Miley Cyrus. Some people become public figures by choice and others achieve this status by being involuntarily thrust into the spotlight.

Courts are much less likely to award damages to public figures in defamation cases for a couple different reasons. First, courts have made a normative decision that the reputations of public figures are less deserving of legal protection. The justification being that public figures such as singers, dancers, actors, and politicians, seek out public attention and thus must take the good attention with the bad. Second, courts recognize that public figures generally have much greater access to the media than average citizens and can use their access to the media to rebut any defamatory statements without assistance from the courts. The thought being that a celebrity who feels defamed can refute the defamatory statement in an interview with a magazine or talk show or can write an editorial for a newspaper.

While the logic of the courts’ rationale is easy to follow when the plaintiff is a public figure by choice, it is harder to justify when the plaintiff is an involuntary public figure, such as a victim of a crime that garners national attention. These involuntary public figures may have no greater access to the media than ordinary citizens. Several courts have recognized this distinction and taken into account how the public figure plaintiff achieved this status. See, e.g., Wells v. Liddy, 186 F.3d 505, 539 (4th Cir. 1999) (“We are hesitant to rest involuntary public figure status upon ‘sheer bad luck.’ Gertz tells us that involuntary public figures ‘must be exceedingly rare,’ and, unfortunately, bad luck is relatively common.”). Others have found the distinction inconsequential. See, e.g., Dameron v. Washington Magazine, Inc., 779 F.2d 736 (D.C. Cir. 1985) (finding that an air traffic controller on-duty at time of airplane crash was a public figure due to his connection “however involuntary” to a public matter).

Private Figures

The second type of plaintiff the courts recognize is the private figure. A private figure is one who has not sought out the public spotlight—nor had it shone on them unwillingly.

A private figure must only prove that the false statement about her was made with ordinary negligence (i.e. that a reasonable person would have known the statement was false). This is much easier to prove than actual malice. The lower burden of proof highlights the courts’ recognition that the reputations of private figures deserve greater protection than those of public figures and that the court system may be a private figure’s only avenue for contesting a defamatory statement.

Any attempt to inhibit speech or to hold someone liable for a statement will naturally implicate the First Amendment. Implicit in the First Amendment is the presumption that more speech is better than less speech. In the case of public figures, courts are even more likely to lean towards more speech because it is in the public’s best interest to openly discuss such figures. Society would suffer if politicians could prevent disclosure of corruption by threatening a defamation lawsuit. However, courts do not recognize the same societal benefit with discussing private figures. Courts are much more likely to protect a private figure’s reputation by finding a statement defamatory. A defendant found guilty of defaming a private figure will find no protection behind the First Amendment because in general false statements are not protected by the First Amendment.

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. To schedule a consultation with one of our skilled attorneys, you can contact us online or give us a call at 630-333-0000.

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