Monday, June 16, 2003

Analyzing "public figure" status just got a little tougher

In Wilson v. Daily Gazette Co., No. 31045 (June 13, 2003)a 17-year old high school basketball player sued a newspaper for reporting allegations that he exposed himself to opposing fans following a basketball game. The circuit court found that he was a public figure and dismissed the claim. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed the finding of "public figure" status, and outlined a new analysis on that issue.

The Court now recognizes three types of public figures in a defamation claim:(1) "involuntary public figures," who become public figures through no purposeful action of their own; (2) "all-purpose public figures," who achieve such pervasive fame or notoriety that they become public figures for all purposes and in all contexts; and (3) "limited purpose public figures," who voluntarily inject themselves into a particular public controversy and thereby become public figures for a limited range of issues.

All-purpose public figures "In a defamation action, in order to find that a plaintiff is an all-purpose public figure, a defendant must produce clear evidence of the plaintiff's general fame or notoriety in the state, and pervasive involvement in the affairs of society. In determining whether a plaintiff is an all-purpose public figure, a trial court may consider (1) statistical survey data concerning the plaintiff's name recognition; (2) evidence of previous coverage of the plaintiff by the media; (3) evidence that others alter or reevaluate their conduct or ideas in light of the plaintiff's actions; and (4) any other relevant evidence." (Syl. Pt. 4)

Limited purpose public figure "A libel plaintiff is a limited purpose public figure if the defendant proves the following: (1) the plaintiff voluntarily engaged in significant efforts to influence a public debate--or voluntarily assumed a position that would propel him to the forefront of a public debate--on a matter of public concern; (2) the public debate or controversy and the plaintiff's involvement in it existed prior to the publication of the allegedly libelous statement; and (3) the plaintiff had reasonable access to channels of communication that would permit him to make an effective response to the defamatory statement in question." (Syl. Pt. 5, quoting Syllabus point 3, State ex rel. Suriano v. Gaughan, 198 W. Va. 339, 480 S.E.2d 548 (1996).

Involuntary public figure "In a defamation action, to prove that a plaintiff is an involuntary public figure, the defendant must demonstrate by clear evidence that (1) the plaintiff has become a central figure in a significant public controversy, (2) that the allegedly defamatory statement has arisen in the course of discourse regarding the public matter, and (3) the plaintiff has taken some action, or failed to act when action was required, in circumstances in which a reasonable person would understand that publicity would likely inhere." (Syl. Pt. 6)

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