45 Baylor L. Rev. 955 (1993)
Defamation Law: Public Figures - Who Are They

handle is hein.journals/baylr45 and id is 965 raw text is: DEFAMATION LAW: PUBLIC FIGURES-WHO ARE THEY?

The inherent clash between the individual interest of reputation
and the public's right to a free flow of information has been a pri-
mary focus of defamation litigation for the past thirty years. The
conflict began when the U.S. Supreme Court held that public
figures, those who have achieved widespread recognition by a par-
ticular community of people, can recover for defamation only upon
showing that their defamers knew or should have known that their
statements were false.' The Court reasoned that the public has a
keen interest in the activities of opinion leaders, therefore state-
ments about them must be subject to heightened protection under
the First Amendment.2
One of the most troublesome issues for lower courts is determin-
ing whether particular plaintiffs are public figures. Lower courts
have found little guidance in the few United States Supreme Court
decisions relating to a plaintiff's public or private status.3 The
Supreme Court's failure to clearly define public figure status has ne-
cessitated ad hoc determinations by lower appellate courts.4 This is
particularly disconcerting since the purpose of the public figure doc-
trine is to prevent the chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas
inherent in such ad hoc evaluations.5
This Note first discusses the evolution of defamation law up to the
development of the public figure doctrine in Gertz v. Robert Welch,
Inc. 6 In Part II, the Note evaluates subsequent Supreme Court cases
in which the plaintiff's public or private status was in issue. Part III
'Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).
'The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,
or abridging the freedom of speech, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. U.S. CONST. amend. I.
First Amendment restrictions apply to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Gitlow v. N.Y., 268 U.S. 652, 666 (1925).
'As one federal district judge remarked, Defining public figures is much like trying to
nail a jellyfish to the wall. Rosanova v., Playboy Enter., Inc., 411 F. Supp. 440, 443
(S.D. Ga. 1976), aff'd 580 F.2d 859 (5th Cir. 1978); see also Waldbaum v. Fairchild Publi-
cations, Inc., 627 F.2d 1287, 1292 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 898 (1980)(U.S.
Supreme Court not fleshed out even skeletal descriptions of a public figure).
'The vast majority of lower court rulings have failed to articulate any standards for
evaluating a plaintiff's status. See Carl Willner, Comment, Defining a Public Controversvy in
the Constitutional Law of Defamation, 69 VA. L. REV. 931, 944 n.77 (1983). Most courts
have concluded that a case-by-case analysis is required. See, e.g., 11aldbaum, 627 F.2d at
1292-93; Schiavone Construction Co. v. Time, Inc., 847 F.2d 1069, 1078 (3d Cir. 1988).
'Gertz, 418 U.S. at 340 (1974).
418 U.S. 323.

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