Public Figure

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The concept of a public figure features prominently in modern first amendment law involving libel suits. new york times v. sullivan (1964) prevented public officials (officeholders and candidates for office) from recovering damages for defamation without proof of actual malice, that is, proof that the statement was made with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard whether it was or not. In Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts (1967) the Supreme Court extended the actual malice rule to public figures, described by the Court as private persons in positions of considerable influence or able to attract attention because they had thrust themselves into public controversies. A public figure commands public interest and therefore has sufficient access to the mass media to be able, like an officeholder, to publicize his response to falsehoods about him. He invites comment and his remarks make news. The Justices unanimously agreed that for the sake of a robust freedom of the press, the actual malice rule applies to public figures, but they disagreed in specific cases on the question whether a particular person, such as the former wife of the scion of a famous family is a public figure, the question before the court in Time Incorporated v. Firestone (1976). The Court has tended to deny the press's claim that the party suing for damages is a public figure.

Leonard W. Levy

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Public Figure

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