Personal Injury Law
What is a public figure and why is that important to defamation law?
Plaintiffs in defamation cases have different burdens of proof depending on their status. If a plaintiff is considered to be a public official or a public figure, he or she must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, which means that the defendant acted knowing the statement in question was false or acted in reckless disregard as to whether the statement was true or false.
However, if a plaintiff suing for defamation is only a private figure, then he or she generally must prove only negligence or fault.
The rationale behind the public official or public figure rationale is two-fold. First, the thinking is that public officials and public figures can more easily counter false statements about them than can private figures. For example, if a tabloid newspaper defames Tom Cruise, he and his public relations people can call a press conference and refute the allegations. However, if someone defames David Hudson, the author of this book, it would be much more difficult for him to counter false allegations.
The second rationale for the different treatment of public and private figures concerns accepting the aspects of fame. Famous people must expect that with fame and public acclaim will come some negative aspects as well.
Another rationale—perhaps even more strongly rooted in the law—is that people should have a strong First Amendment (freedom of expression) right to speak about public issues and that punishing them for every single error would chill free expression. This reasoning led the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt the public official rule in defamation cases in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).