Gertz v. Robert Welch(1974)•public figures invite public attention and comment;•public figures have access to the media to counter false and defamatory statements about themselves.
Categories of public figures All-purpose public figures occupy positions of pervasive power and influence. Private persons who thrust themselves into a public controversy to affect its outcome become limited-purpose public figures.Occasionally individuals become involuntary public figures, caught up in circumstances beyond their control that make them public figures for that particular public controversy.
All-Purpose Public FigureAll-purpose public figures occupy positions of pervasive power and influence, Their widespread fame or notoriety commands public and media attentionIn libel suits, courts found these to be public figures for all purposes•Johnny Carson •Carol Burnett•William F. Buckley Jr.•Wayne Newton•Ralph Nader
Hypothetical:What type of public figure?A wealthy woman was sued for divorce by her prominent husband. Time Magazine reports the husband is granted a divorce on grounds of adultery. That was false. The judge granted divorce on grounds that neither was “domesticated.”His wife was a prominent figure in the community charitable causes. She called press conferences during divorce proceedings. She sues for the libel over Time’s report.
What category for libel?All-purpose public figure, or limited-purpose/vortex public figures, or private person?Firestone v Time (1972): socialite Firestone is judged a private person for libel in report about her divorce.Gertz v. Welch (1974): lawyer Gertz is private person for his libel suit.
Definition of limited/vortex public figureThe alleged defamation must involve a public controversy existing prior to and not created by the defamatory publication;The plaintiff must have voluntarily participated in that public controversy;And the plaintiff must have tried to affect the outcome of the controversy.
What is a public controversy?A limited public figure plaintiff only has to show actual malice if the publication was about the plaintiff’s involvement in a public controversy.A public controversy is a “dispute that in fact has received public attention because its ramifications will be felt by persons not direct participants.” (Foretick v. ABC)..
What is a public controversy?Mrs. Firestone’s divorce was not a public controversy.As a prominent socialite in her community she might be a public figure for a story about her community activism where she has inserted herself into a controversy.In an article about her divorce she is a private person in a libel case.