Involuntary Public Figures

101px-Sasha_ObamaI am teaching Advanced Torts this semester.  I’ve never taught this course before, though I have taught aspects of this class in other courses.  One unit that I found especially interesting was defamation and libel, which is not a subject that I took in law school or encountered much afterwards.  I was really struck by this passage in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., which limited the actual malice standard of New York Times v. Sullivan to public figures.

“Hypothetically, it may be possible for someone to become a public figure through no purposeful action of his own, but the instances of truly involuntary public figures must be exceedingly rare.”

This statement is highly questionable.  There are lots of involuntary public figures today.  Children of celebrities.  Folks who are exposed to scrutiny on social media.  And so on.  Yet the Court used this premise (few involuntary public figures) to support the point that involuntary public figures should be treated like voluntary public figures (government officials or celebrities).  Things are too well settled, I suppose, to challenge this rule, but its foundation seems weaker.

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