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Public and Private Figures 

Public and Private Figures
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Public and Private Figures

A public figure is a person who assumes a role of prominence in society, such as an elected official, a celebrity, or an infamous criminal. In cases of alleged libel, public figures are afforded less legal protection than private individuals.3,7 In a 1964 case, New York Times Co v Sullivan,10 the US Supreme Court determined that for a public official to prove defamation, the official must demonstrate that the alleged defamatory statement was made with “actual malice” (ie, with knowledge that the statement was false or with disregard for the truth of the statement) (see also 5.9, Defamation, Libel). A private figure is defined in the negative: someone who is not a public figure.7 In contrast, a private individual need not prove malice, only negligence, to be successful in a libel suit.3,4,6,7

In legal settings, biomedical authors or researchers who publish might be considered “limited-purpose” public figures, for example, if they publish articles in an attempt to influence a matter of substantial public interest, a governmental agency decision, or legislation.3(§5.05),7 In some cases, an author who publishes might be considered a limited-purpose public figure among the community represented by the readers of a specific publication (eg, journal, bulletin board, chat room).6,15,16

Answers to the following questions may aid in determining public figure status of an individual and vulnerability to a claim of defamation when a personal statement about an individual is published3,4,7:

  • Is the person described someone who has assumed a role of prominence or notoriety?

  • Does the content of the statement pertain to a matter of public controversy or public concern?

  • If the statement refers to a public figure, does it contain references to the individual’s public figure status (eg, the individual’s job performance or public behavior)?

  • If the statement refers to a public figure, will the connection between such references and the individual’s public status be evident to a reasonable reader?

  • If the reference is peripheral to the person’s public figure status or responsibilities, does it involve nonrelevant, highly intimate, or embarrassing facts?

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