Important Decision on “Public Figure” Status in Prominent Libel Case

In May 2014, a federal court ruled in a network libel case an international sporting goods supplier is not a public figure — or a limited-purpose public figure. In Mitre Sports International Limited vs. Home Box Office, Inc., the court pronounced Mitre not a public figure for libel purposes. The ruling means the case is proceeding in a way favorable to Mitre and potentially very important to other companies and individuals.

The issue arose from an episode HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumble.” It concerned child labor in India making soccer balls and showed cramped children sewing Mitre-brand balls. While acknowledging Mitre labeled child labor as a problem, and had pledged to prevent it, the segment alleged Mitre’s Indian sub-contractors secretly carried out the child labor abuses. This allegation turned out to be false.

Mitre asserted it was not a public figure status. This question pops up in most defamation cases. The issue looms large due to First Amendment rules. If the court finds Mitre a public figure, it must show HBO published false information with actual malice, i.e., knowledge of its falsity, or “reckless disregard” of its truthfulness. Such a finding would mean Mitre must prove HBO had serious doubts about the truth of the segment when it aired. Just showing HBO failed fully to investigate would not suffice.
However, if the sports company is a private figure, it faces a lower “negligence” requirement. The diligence of HBO’s prior investigation would then be a key issue. HBO asserted Mitre was a public figure for libel purposes because Mitre sells sporting good world-wide, is internationally the No. 1 maker of soccer balls in the world, and advertises and markets its products across the globe.

The judge disagreed. The court wrote that Mitre had not gained “general fame and notoriety” and wrote that even well-known companies selling and advertising typical products are not [automatically] general purpose public figures.
The question then became whether Mitre was a limited-purpose public figure. The court’s analysis involved whether Mitre had voluntarily inserted itself in the public eye on the issues. Despite evidence by HBO that Mitre had publicly denounced child labor in public statements, sponsored an international conference on it, and engaged public attempts to rectify the problem, the court ruled HBO failed to show, “…the level of involvement required… [.]”

The decision for Mitre (on summary judgment) means it faces – and perhaps many corporations similarly situated, may face, a lower proof-of-negligence standard than many previously thought.