Entertainment Law: What Makes a Public Figure?

April 13, 2016
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What Makes a Public Figure?

When it comes to defamation, the distinction between public figures and lesser-known individuals is very important, but what makes a public figure?

There’s a good chance most people who work in sports or entertainment are public figures, however, there is no guarantee they are considered as such. This is something that Jerry Heller, the former manager of seminal hip-hop group N.W.A., is attempting to argue. People may know who he is, and he may be connected to such definite public figures as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, but does that make Heller a public figure himself? He doesn’t think so, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and for him that distinction is very important right now. Heller is currently in the midst of a defamation lawsuit against NBCUniversal, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and other defendants, something he alluded to in an interview with White Label Radio.

Heller has been arguing that he is not a public figure, a very important point in any defamation lawsuit. This is because the standards for proving defamation are different for public figures than they are for other people. For most people a defamation lawsuit hinges on negligence, while for public figures the burden is higher – actual malice. What exactly is it that makes someone a public figure?

Public figure status is unclear, but there are some hints 

One thing we know for sure is who is and is not considered a public figure, but there’s a gray area as far as when someone achieves this status. However, as far as why the burden of proof on them is higher, though, is a bit more apparent. Gertz v. Welch established two reasons why public figures must prove actual malice.

The first is an individual’s access to the media. Public figures, the court argued, have significantly more access to mainstream communication channels than private figures do. This sort of access makes it easier for public figures to rebut potentially defamatory statements made against them. In addition, the court noted that public figures have assumed an increased risk of injury by placing themselves in the spotlight. It can be assumed, then, that public figures are individuals with access to the media who have some sort of space in the spotlight.

Different types of public figures

The court also outlined three different types of public figures. They are as follows:

  • General public figures: These individuals have voluntarily placed themselves in the public view.
  • Limited-purpose public figures: This sort of public figure is someone who has thrust him or herself into the spotlight for a specific reason, such as addressing a controversy. A good example may be Kim Davis, the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky who refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples.
  • Involuntary public figures: It is not as clear who exactly, these individuals may be, but suffice to say they’re rarely the focal point of defamation cases. These individuals did not voluntarily assume the risk of injury that comes with being in the spotlight, but are in public view for one reason or another.

The case-by-case nature of public figures 

Public figure status is usually determined on a case-by-case basis. There is a concern about placing too many people in the public figure category, and making it too easy for defendants to shut down defamation lawsuits. Local notoriety, for instance, does not necessarily mean someone is a public figure. The spotlight should shine on something closer to a national basis. A semi-professional football player, for instance, may not be considered a public figure though he may be known to many people within the region his team represents. However, someone who plays football in the NFL is most likely a public figure, due to his national prominence.

If you’re unsure about whether or not you’re a public figure, speak with an entertainment law attorney for more information.

Otherwise, for more articles dealing with entertainment law, check out: