Public figure

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A public figure is a person who has achieved fame, prominence or notoriety within a society,[1] whether through achievement, luck, action, or in some cases through no purposeful action of their own.[2]

In the context of defamation actions (libel and slander) as well as invasion of privacy, a public figure cannot succeed in a lawsuit on incorrect harmful statements in the United States unless there is proof that the writer or publisher acted with actual malice by knowing the falsity or by reckless disregard for the truth.[3] The legal burden of proof in defamation actions is thus higher in the case of a public figure than in the case of an ordinary person.

Libel laws vary considerably on this matter from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even within a cultural grouping, the libel laws of the UK are quite different from those in the US, for example.

United States[edit]

The controlling precedent in the United States was set in 1964 by the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which 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 a public figure status. Typically, they must either be:

  • a public figure, a public official or any other person pervasively involved in public affairs, or
  • a limited purpose public figure, according to Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., is a person who has "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved."[4] A "particularized determination" is required to decide whether a person is a limited purpose public figure, which can be variously interpreted:

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. 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".

Discussion of a person on the Internet may at times rise to the level that it causes the subject of discussion to be treated as an involuntary public figure.[5]

Corporations are not automatically treated as public figures, and defamation claims made by corporations are evaluated under the same standard as those made by individuals.[6]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Wise, Richard M. (1 January 1983). "The Athlete as Public Figure in Light of Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., or Torts in Sports: The Role of the Cour". Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal. 6 (2): 326.
  2. ^ Fliegel, Rod M. (January 1992). "Newton v. National Broadcasting Co., Inc.: Evidence of Actual Malice, the Editorial Process and the Mafia in Public Figure Defamation Law". Golden Gate University Law Review. 22 (1): 235.
  3. ^ Shiffrin, Steven H. (2006). The First Amendment. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/ West. pp. 58–60. ISBN 978-0-314-16256-4.
  4. ^ "Who is considered a public figure?". PBS. Retrieved June 19, 2023.
  5. ^ Dotinga, Randy (9 November 2005). "Are You a 'Public Figure'?". Wired.
  6. ^ "Online Defamation Law". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 2011-08-26. Retrieved 11 December 2017.