In United States law, public figure is a term applied in the context of defamation actions (libel and slander) as well as invasion of privacy. A public figure (such as a politician, celebrity, or business leader) cannot base a lawsuit on incorrect harmful statements unless there is proof that the writer or publisher acted with actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth). The burden of proof in defamation actions is higher in the case of a public figure.
The controlling precedent in the United States was set in 1964 by the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. It is considered a key decision in supporting the First Amendment and freedom of the press.
A fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate people to public figure status. Typically, they must either be:
- a public figure, either a public official or any other person pervasively involved in public affairs, or
- a limited purpose public figure, meaning those who have "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved." A "particularized determination" is required to decide whether a person is a limited purpose public figure, which can be variously interpreted.
According to attorney Aaron Larson:
A person can become an "involuntary public figure" as the result of publicity, even though that person did not want or invite the public attention. For example, people accused of high profile crimes may be unable to pursue actions for defamation even after their innocence is established...
A person can also become a "limited public figure" by engaging in actions which generate publicity within a narrow area of interest. For example, [jokes about]... Terry Rakolta [an activist who spearheaded a boycott of the show Married With Children] were fair comments... within the confines of her public conduct [and] protected by Ms. Rakolta's status as a "limited public figure".
- Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)
- Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967)
- Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988)
- Adams, Kate M. "(Re)defining Public Officials and Public Figures: A Washington State Primer." (Archive) Seattle University Law Review. Seattle University School of Law. Vol 23:1155-2000. p. 1155-1187.