Wick Communications

Who is a public figure?

In Media law on April 22, 2010 at 1:58 pm

It’s an important question, first because of its legal consequences, but also because the determination has a bearing on how we treat the people in our community.

By that I mean we are liable to consider the local congresswoman differently than the high school principal, who is himself a different sort of source than the senior citizen who lives down the street. I think it’s reasonable to consider public figures capable of dealing with a good deal of scrutiny.

So who are they? We would all likely agree that the congresswoman is a public figure. Is the school principal? How about a teacher? Heck, how about the parents of a kid who does something terrible?

If you are looking for a bright line, you won’t find it here. These are some of the most vexing judgment calls we are likely to make in the course of our daily work. I’d like to ease your mind a bit by giving you some tips, and also explain why the determination is important legally…

One rule of thumb is that public figures are synonymous with government officials. I think that is useful and would include teachers, firemen, city councilwomen, etc. But many other types of people are unquestionably public figures too. They include professional athletes and well-known entertainers.

A non-government person may become a public figure by thrusting himself into the limelight. These are people who forfeit a measure of privacy by virtue of their actions. The father of the balloon boy hoax in Colorado comes to mind.

You can be an “involuntary public figure,” if publicity makes you so. That would apply to a murderer, for instance, or even a bank president who is subpoenaed to testify before Congress.

Some people are “limited public figures.” These people are only to be considered public in connection with the things that make them public figures. That would be true of a woman who writes copious letters to her congressman and therefore becomes the face of a public campaign.

Let your common sense be your guide and don’t hesitate to discuss particulars with someone who is versed in such issues.

Why is the designation important? Many years ago, Time magazine gave a helpful and succinct guide to libel law that explained why “public figure” matters legally. To wit:

In matters of libel, public figures are not as other mortals, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a series of cases since 1964, the court has ruled that a public figure cannot collect libel damages without proving that “actual malice” was involved in the publishing of inaccurate and defamatory material. Actual malice, said the court, means publishing with knowledge that a statement is false or with “reckless disregard” of whether it is false or not. The average person, on the other hand, must show only that the publisher of such material was guilty of “some type of fault,” as would be found in a negligence case. The point, the court said, is to accommodate the First Amendment by giving publishers some legal “breathing space” in reporting on public figures.

In other words, a public figure would have to prove that you acted maliciously (hence the photo at the top of this post, a publicity still from the movie “Absence of Malice), with reckless disregard of the truth, to collect on a libel judgment. Obviously, this is important stuff.

— Clay

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