A public figure is a person, such as a politician, celebrity, social media personality, or business leader, who has a certain social position within a certain scope and a significant influence and so is often widely of concern to the public, can benefit enormously from society, and is closely related to public interests in society.
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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. 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.
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, those who have "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved." 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. For example, people accused of high profile crimes may be unable to pursue actions for defamation even after their innocence is established. ... 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".
- Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)
- Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967)
- Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988)
- Adams, Kate M. "(Re)defining Public Officials and Public Figures: A Washington State Primer." (Archive) Seattle University Law Review. Seattle University School of Law. Vol 23:1155-2000. p. 1155-1187.
- Ferrari, Anne (2016-08-10). "Using Celebrities in Abnormal Psychology as Teaching Tools to Decrease Stigma and Increase Help Seeking". Teaching of Psychology. 43 (4): 329–333. doi:10.1177/0098628316662765.
- Shiffrin, Steven H. (2006). The First Amendment. St. Paul, MN: Thomson/ West. pp. 58–60. ISBN 978-0-314-16256-4.
- Aaron Larson: Defamation, Libel and Slander Law. Expertlaw.com, August 2003
- Dotinga, Randy (9 November 2005). "Are You a 'Public Figure'?". Wired.
- "Online Defamation Law". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 2011-08-26. Retrieved 11 December 2017.