Finding the Lost Involuntary Public Figure
62 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2015
Date Written: February 21, 2014
This Article begins in Part I through observation of the beginning and development of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the constitutional limitations imposed upon defamation actions under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Part II of the Article then briefly sets forth the constitutional framework that the Supreme Court imposed in 1974 on defamation actions in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. The Article then addresses in Part III how the pressures of the First Amendment have eroded the structure that Gertz built. In doing so, Part III specifically explores the expanding definition of who constitutes a public official and what qualifies as a matter of public controversy, the weakening of the underlying rationales for Gertz’s distinguishing between public and private figures both in terms of access to channels of communication and the definition of voluntariness, and the increasing force of Justice William Brennan’s contention in Gertz, advanced in his dissenting opinion, that there is no such thing as a private person. Part IV seeks to demonstrate that, while First Amendment pressures have weakened the edifice created by the Gertz structure, there is continuing value and purpose to the Gertz framework. Having developed an understanding of the Gertz structure as it exists today, the constitutional pressures thereupon, and continuing value thereof, Part V defines the involuntary public figure. Part V also reflects the manner in which this understanding of who qualifies as an involuntary public figure relieves some of the First Amendment pressures on other categories within the Gertz framework, while still serving the enduring purposes of Gertz’s distinguishing public from private persons. Most notably the Article addresses how the disuse of the involuntary public figure category has resulted in distortion of the concept of voluntariness, which plays a critical role in classification of an individual as a public figure or private individual.
Keywords: Defamation; First Amendment; Public Figure; Public Official; Gertz, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan; Involuntary Public Figure
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