Who is a “Public Figure” in a Defamation Case?

A plaintiff in a defamation case who is a public figure must establish that the alleged false statement was made with either knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Gertz v. Robert Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 342, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 3008 (1974). The standard from Gertz is based on the premise that public figures have willingly exposed themselves to the possibility of public criticism, and that they are better positioned than private individuals to publicly refute false statements or have  such statements corrected.

Who is a Public Official?

The plaintiff in Gertz was an attorney hired to represent the family of a young man who had been shot and killed by a Chicago policeman. An outlet called American Opinion, which expressed the views of the John Birch Society, published numerous inaccurate statements about Gertz, including that he had a criminal record and that he was a “Communist-fronter.” Gertz filed suit for defamation, which was eventually appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Court noted that there were two situations where an individual would be considered a public figure for the purposes of a defamation case. The first instance involved someone who had attained such widespread notoriety such that they were effectively a public figure in all contexts. The second and more common situation involved someone who voluntarily injected themselves or was drawn into a particular public controversy, and was a public figure in that limited context.

Gertz had participated in community and professional affairs, but had not achieved any sort of general notoriety. Therefore, the Court looked at his involvement in the particular limited controversy at issue.

Gertz was an attorney representing a family in a private lawsuit. He took no part in the criminal prosecution of the officer who shot his client’s son. He had never discussed the case with the press. He did not attempt to frame his case as a public issue, or to use the media to influence the outcome of his case. He had not become a public figure during the course of this litigation or for any matters related to the case.

The determination of whether someone is a public figure will depend on the unique facts of a case. To discuss your defamation case, consult with an experienced civil litigation attorney.

Chernoff Law handles litigation matters throughout Arizona, including defamation litigation. Contact us by calling 480-719-7307 to discuss your legal matters.