The "public officials" category includes politicians and high-ranking governmental figures, but also extends to government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs. Courts have interpreted these criteria broadly, extending the public figure classification to civil servants far down the government hierarchy. For example, the supervisor of a county recreational ski center was held to be a "public official" for purposes of defamation law. See Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966). Some courts have even extended the protection to all individuals engaged in matters of public health, such as hospital staff, given the importance of health issues for the general public. See Hall v. Piedmont Publishing Co., 46 N.C. App. 760, 763 (1980).

In general, if an individual is classified as a public official, defamatory statements relating to any aspects of their lives must meet the actual malice standard of fault for there to be liability. Moreover, even after passage of time or leaving office, public officials must still meet the actual malice standard because the public has a continued interest in the misdeeds of its leaders.

Public Figures

There are two types of "public figures" recognized under defamation law: "all-purpose" public figures and "limited-purpose" public figures.

All-purpose public figures are private individuals who occupy "positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figure for all purposes. . . . They invite attention and comment." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1972). For these individuals, the actual malice standard extends to virtually all aspects of their lives.

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