In every defamation case, it’s necessary to determine whether the plaintiff should be treated as a public figure, a public official, or a regular Average Joe. This is because “public” plaintiffs face a much higher burden of proof than “private” plaintiffs. A private plaintiff normally only needs to prove that a defamatory statement was made with negligence in regard to whether the statement was true or false, whereas a public plaintiff generally needs to show that the defendant acted with malice, which is much more difficult to prove than negligence. There are many justifications for the discrepancy, but the most frequently cited are that (a) public plaintiffs voluntarily assumed the spotlight, and they should know that having people talk loosely about them comes with the territory, and (b) by virtue of their notoriety, public plaintiffs have more opportunities to rebut defamatory statements. Courts sometimes use the terms “public figure” and “public official” interchangeably, but they are conceptually different, and different considerations determine whether a plaintiff should be treated as one or the other.
The main distinguishing feature is that public officials are not necessarily attention-seeking, and as a result, they are not always treated as “public” plaintiffs who would need to show malice in order to prevail in a defamation action.
In the landmark case of New York Times Co. v Sullivan, the Supreme Court established the rule that a public official must prove “actual malice” to prevail in a defamation action based on a statement relating to his or her official conduct. Later, in Rosenblatt v Baer, the Court clarified what it means to be a “public official,” holding that the designation applies to government employees who have (or appear to the public to have) substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs. “There is,” the Court reasoned, “first, a strong interest in debate on public issues, and, second, a strong interest in debate about those persons who are in a position significantly to influence the resolution of those issues.” In practice, this test generally means that government employees will only be considered public officials subject to the malice standard if they hold a high position that carries substantial power and control, or are elected by the public. In deciding whether to treat a government employee as a public official, courts look to whether the position has such importance that the public has a justifiable interest in the qualifications and behavior of the person who holds it beyond that which the public has in all government employees.
In 1967, the New York Times rule was extended in Curtis Pub. Co. v Butts to apply to public figures who were not public officials. The Court defined “public figure” as one who commanded a substantial amount of public interest by his position alone, or who had “thrust himself into the vortex of the controversy” by some purposeful activity. In other words, the Court held that it was important to determine the extent to which the plaintiff had voluntarily injected himself or herself into a public debate. The court reasoned that a public figure essentially “assumes the risk” of falsehoods and fallacies when jumping into the vortex of a public controversy and that he or she will suffer less harm to reputation (if any) because he or she will have “sufficient access to the means of counterargument” to set the record straight.
Of course, there are different levels of fame and notoriety, and a person who enters the limelight to some limited extent does not necessarily become a household name. If the public knows of the plaintiff for only a limited reason, that person will usually be treated as a “limited purpose” public figure. Like public officials, who must prove malice only if the defamatory statement relates to their official conduct, limited-purpose public figures must prove malice only if the statement relates to the subject on which they are deemed public figures. (By contrast, all-purpose public figures–generally, celebrities and household names–must prove malice in any defamation action regardless of the topic). For example, a president of a homeowners association might be deemed a limited-purpose public figure (and therefore be required to show malice) when pursuing a defamation claim based on statements concerning his management of the association, but would not be subject to that higher standard when pursuing a claim based on allegations having nothing to do with association business.