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Defamation Defenses: Scope of Public Figures

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Who Is a Public Figure in a Defamation Lawsuit?

Anyone, given the right circumstances could be considered a public figure. The term "public figure" is not limited to government officials and celebrities. Some courts have determined bar owners, restaurateurs, accountants, and even insurance agents to be public figures in certain defamation cases.

What Factors Allow a Person to Be Labeled a Public Figure?

There are generally two bases that allow a person to be labeled a public figure. The first exists when a person has so much fame and notoriety, that they can generally be considered a public figure. This is usually the case with most government officials and celebrities, who attain public figure status based on their identity alone. 

The second base exists when a person voluntary places themselves in the limelight of a particular issue, gaining public figure status through involvement with a specific controversy. An example of this would be a store manager who holds a press conference after a former employee sues the store for racial discrimination. When determining public figures on this base, courts have looked into a number of varying factors, including:

  • Whether the controversy in question involves activities or businesses open to the public
  • Any radio or television appearances made by person regarding controversy
  • Books or articles written by person relating to controversy
  • Speeches and public appearances made by person regarding controversy
  • If person grants interviews regarding controversy
  • Hiring of a public relations firm to deal with controversy
  • Whether person generally was receptive to media coverage regarding controversy

It is important to note that the preceding list is not all-inclusive, and such factors can differ depending on both state variations and the circumstances of each defamation case.

How Does Labeling a Person a Public Figure Affect a Defamation Case?

If an individual is labeled as a public figure, they usually cannot sue others for defamation unless there was actual malice (i.e. false statements were knowingly or purposely made to inflict harm).

For example, suppose celebrity X wants to sue newspaper Y for printing an article falsely stating that X is gay. Because X is considered a public figure, his defamation case is unlikely to be successful unless X can show that Y knew or should have known X was not gay.

How Can a Lawyer Help Me?

If you are suing someone for defamation, you should contact an attorney to protect both your rights and reputation. An experienced lawyer can inform you about your status as a public figure, and help plan your particular case accordingly.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 12-20-2016 05:11 PM PST

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