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What is a Public Figure?

By Leo Zimmermann
Updated May 16, 2024
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A public figure is a person who has achieved a certain degree of fame in the public sphere. The term has significance for United States civil law because it affects the resolution of certain types of lawsuits. These people are expected to tolerate more scrutiny than others, and consequently have more difficulties in winning cases surrounding the issues of defamation and privacy.

Ideas associated with this category of people have figured prominently in rulings on defamation cases by the United States Supreme Court. These rulings are generally based on interpretations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. They deal both with protections of free speech and with the federal government's ability to regulate states.

Several sources identify New York v. Sullivan (1964) as the first case to create the public figure standard. The case concerned a dispute between the New York Times and certain public officials in Alabama: particularly L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery Public Safety commissioner. The government of Alabama sued the newspaper for running an advertisement allegedly defaming Sullivan and others. The United States Supreme Court overruled a decision, favorable to Sullivan, by the Alabama Supreme Court. Their reasoning was that because Sullivan had already placed himself into the public sphere, his case required a higher burden of proof than had been demonstrated or was usually necessary.

In the same case, the Supreme Court also originated a standard called "actual malice," the criterion necessary to rule against a public figure in a defamation case. In a typical libel or slander case, damaging a person's reputation with incorrect facts might be sufficient for a ruling. In order to lose a suit to someone designated as a public official, however, the defendant must have acted with actual malice, or "knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth." New York v. Sullivan did not contain the precise phrase "public figure," but it is cited as controlling precedent because the actual malice standard came to govern future cases concerning this type of person.

Later rulings created an intermediate category of "limited public figures." Cases such as Gertz v. Welch (1974) left open room for discretion in certain types of situation. In particular, the category was used to describe someone who had been thrust into the public sphere at a particular time for a particular reason. The Court ruled that a person could be designated a public figure insofar as they had become relevant, but that this status did not necessary apply to them in all of their affairs, for the rest of their lives. The Gertz ruling also emphasized that individual states could, to some degree, make their own determinations about defamation law.

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Discussion Comments

By doglover139 — On Jun 29, 2011

Selena Gomez is a public figure.

By Crispety — On Jan 20, 2011

SurfNturf-These cases are difficult to prove because just because something printed is erroneous it does not mean that it is slanderous.

Opinions are not slander and neither is information that you thought to be true. If you had a few sources that told you some information and you printed the information the libel laws would state that you did not commit libel because you did not have a malicious intent.

By surfNturf — On Jan 19, 2011

Latte31-Defamation libel refers to written information that is untrue, but it also has to meet the same standards.

Many celebrities do not pursue slander on the internet or other slander cases because they are difficult to prove and the punitive damages received are often less than the lawsuit.

In addition, the celebrity does not want to draw more attention to the case and give the media outlet even more publicity which would drive up sales and have even more people read the story.

This is why you don't hear about many slander lawsuits or outcries of public slander.

By latte31 — On Jan 19, 2011

Slander of a public figure is difficult to prove because there are so many conditions that have to be met before something is considered defamation of character.

Not only does an untrue statement have to be made about someone but the information has to be put out by an unrelated party and the person accusing another party of slander must prove that there was malicious intent and the injured party can demonstrate the actual damages that occurred as a result of the slander.

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