Let's say that a reporter is investigating corruption at city hall and reports on the evidence she's found. But there's a problem. Because powerful people were able to cover their tracks and hide evidence, her information is incomplete. As a result, her reporting leaves the impression that the mayor is involved wrong doing. The mayor decides to sue the reporter and the newspaper for libel--stating that all the charges are false.
But not so fast, when the mayor files his lawsuit with the courts, he learns that he is considered a public official and therefore will have to prove actual malice on the part of the reporter instead of falsity--as would be the case for a private citizen. This means that he will have a more difficult time winning his case than a private person.
Even though we live in a society that enjoys free speech, when it comes to influence and the ability to be heard, the rich, powerful and highly visible usually enjoy greater advantages than ordinary people. For instance, if a state senator or noted movie star wishes to conduct an emergency press conference, the press will surely attend. If false or inaccurate stories are circulated against such people, they have a greater chance of setting the record straight.
On the other hand, if you or I call a news briefing, probably no one from the media will show-up to report our side of the story. As a result, we will have a more difficult time setting the record straight and repairing our reputations.
In a free society this imbalance creates a series of unique problems--and especially so for citizens and reporters disseminating news stories containing embarrassing facts and information. This is because the people they report on usually have the financial means to bring suits and legal actions against those who report on them. Thus, without special safeguarads, free speech can be stifled, to the potential detriment of society, if one group of people can successfully control what is said and heard about them. As in our illustration for example, facts about political corruption can be very difficult to obtain. Powerful people have the means of hiding information. Thus, it would be a greater harm to society to allow political corruption to continue than to allow a story, that may have some inaccurate facts to be printed. To address these differences, the courts have created a category of people known as Public Officials and Figures who receive less protection than private citizens on matters of public concern.
Public officials and public figures are terms describing a class of prominent people, either in government or private business, who enjoy greater power and visibility than ordinary citizens. For instance, the mayor of a city is considered a public official while MicroSoft CEO Bill Gates is considered a public figure. As far as the law is concerned, each are treated the same way. The key here is that public figures hold positions that invite public scrutiny. In special cases, businesses corporations can qualify as a public figure.
Types of Public Figures
The Law recognizes three types of public figures:
All-Purpose Public Figures
People like the president and famous celebrities who receive constant media attention and whose names are considered household words usually qualify as all-purpose public figures. Since this designation is one that lasts for life, the courts have ruled that few people actually qualify for this designation.
Limited-Purpose Public Figures
Most public figures qualify as limited-purpose public figures. This designation is reserved for those who throw themselves into the public eye over some matter of public concern. For instance, Johnny Cochran, OJ Simpson's attorney in the 90's, received much media attention during his sensational trial. At that time, he would have qualified as a limited-purpose public figure. Were he still alive today, he might not be considered as a public figure--except for matters having to do with OJ Simpson.
Voluntary and Involuntary Public FiguresFree Speech Exception
People can become public figures through events which thrust them into the public eye even when they are not seeking publicity. For instance, a person who performs a heroic action during a robbery or risks their own life to save another might well become an involuntary public figure. This person's status as a public figure is fleeting and will probably only last until some new figure emerges.
- Private citizens have only to prove falsity to win libel cases unless what was said involves a matter of important public concern. If this is the case, they must prove reckless disregard and actual malice.
- People classified as a public figures are required to prove that whatever false or inaccurate information was said about them was done so with a reckless disregard for the truth or with malice aforethought.
The public figure classification makes it possible for important matters of public concern to be discussed without worry that one will suffer legal retribution if all the information isn't exactly right. It is a way of leveling the playing field between private citizens and the rich and powerful .
For More Information
- For an opposite point of view about the private lives of politicians, read our friend's opinion from Great Britain Injunctions protect the public sphere. Guardian UK newspaper.
- How Paparazzi Work
- Proving Fault: Actual Malice and Negligence
- Public Figures--Wikipedia
- Public Officials and Public Figures from US Legal