ERIC Number: ED224028
Record Type: RIE
Publication Date: 1982-Jul
Reference Count: 0
The Public/Private Figure Status of Corporate and Executive Libel Plaintiffs after "Gertz."
Drechsel, Robert E.; Moon, Deborah
Since 1974, when the Supreme Court concluded in "Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc." that public figures and private figures deserve different treatment under libel law (with private figures needing a lower standard of proof), most lower courts have had to sort out the two categories. From the results in "Gertz" and other cases, three questions have emerged that seem crucial in drawing the public/private line: (1) Is there controversy at all, and is it truly "public" and not just newsworthy? (2) Has the plaintiff voluntarily done something to inject himself or herself into the controversy? and (3) Did the plaintiff enter the controversy in an effort to influence the outcome? In 17 cases since "Gertz," nearly two-thirds of the corporations have been adjudged private figures, and two-thirds of these have won favorable decisions. Answering each of the three questions has been difficult for the courts, and the answers given are not entirely consistent. Unlike corporate plaintiffs, business people suing the media since "Gertz" were found to be public figures in 7 out of 13 cases. At the same time, those judged private figures were more successful. Answering the three questions for business people seems even more difficult and messy than for corporate plaintiffs. Still, when taken together, more than half of both business people and corporate plaintiffs have been found to be private figures, a result that may not bode well for the press. To protect themselves, journalists must carefully consider the courts' criteria, but at the same time, they should not allow fear of libel to stifle their business reporting. (JL)
Publication Type: Reports - Research; Speeches/Meeting Papers
Education Level: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers: Business News; Gertz v Robert Welch Inc; Libel
Note: Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism (65th, Athens, OH, July 25-28, 1982).