Public Figures

In New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court required that public officials suing for defamation prove ‘‘actual malice.’’ Subsequent appeals questioning whether the Times–Sullivan rule applied to public figures resulted in plurality opinions that left the law unsettled. In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967), and Associated Press v. Walker, 388 U.S. 130 (1967), the Court required actual malice. Chief Justice Warren’s concurring opinion defined public figures as those intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or who by reason of their fame shape events in areas of concern to society. Another Supreme Court plurality opinion, Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29 (1971), appeared to require actual malice even when a private individual was suing, as long as the issue was one of public concern.

The Supreme Court next took up the issue in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), where it recognized a distinction between public and private figures. As to public figures, it found that individuals can be universal public figures due to general notoriety or limited public figures when they thrust themselves into a matter of public controversy. A public figure, whether universal or limited, must prove actual malice to recover for defamation

Since Gertz, the Supreme Court has decided that a party to litigation is not necessarily a public figure (Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448, 1976) and that an individual who did not voluntarily thrust himself into a public controversy is not a public figure (Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 1979). Courts continue having difficulty distinguishing between private and public figures, with one lower court commenting it is ‘‘much like trying to nail a jellyfish to the wall.’’

PHILIP L. MERKEL

References and Further Reading

  • Dobbs, Dan D. The Law of Torts, 1174–1178. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2000.
  • Smolla, Rodney A. Smolla and Nimmer on Freedom of Speech, vol. 2. St. Paul, MN: Thomson West, 2005, 23- 24–23-82.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Associated Press v. Walker, 388 U.S. 130 (1967)
  • Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967)
  • Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)
  • Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979)
  • New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)
  • Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29 (1971)
  • Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448 (1976)
  • Rosanova v. Playboy Enterprises, 411 F. Supp. 440 (S.D. Ga. 1976), aff’d 480 F.2d 859 (5th Cir. 1978)

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