When is a Person a Limited Public Figure in Libel and Slander Cases in San Diego and Los Angeles?
The determination of public figure status in California defamation cases is complex. There are multiple differing tests guiding courts all over the country. While each court’s decision on public figure stature requires a case-by-case analysis done by the judge in each matter, there are general guidelines most courts follow. Each judge’s early decision on limited public figure classification is very important. A defendant sued for libel or slander will have a much easier time defending her or his case, i.e., requiring the plaintiff show “actual malice” (generally, intentional defamation) if that defendant can show the plaintiff is a public figure.
The vast majority of libel and slander cases arise between private parties. People who are pervasive public figures – such as Brad Pitt or Madonna – usually make headlines if involved in a defamation case. People in between, dubbed “limited” purpose public figures, promote much of the scholarship and legal opinions on the subject. Defendants often strive to show the plaintiff is a limited public figure to make it more difficult for her or him to win.
The key variables the court uses to decide if a defendant or plaintiff is a limited public figure include five of special importance. First, there must be a public controversy. Second, the court examines the level of voluntariness in the plaintiff’s involvement in the controversy. Third, how much access, if any, does the plaintiff have to channels of communication for responsive speech? Fourth, what is the degree of public divisiveness about the debate? And fifth, what is the degree of the plaintiff’s efforts to affect resolution of the controversy?
I cannot provide analysis of each element in this short description but will do so in future blogs here.