In the wake of Rush Limbaugh’s incendiary radio outburst last week, it is humbling to consider that the woman he branded a “slut” would not be entitled to the same legal protections that she might have enjoyed if she had not wandered into the controversy over women’s reproductive rights.
Under current libel law Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown student who bravely spoke up for a woman’s right to birth control in Washington, is counted as a limited-purpose public figure rather than as a private individual because she has voluntarily stepped into the controversy. This classification places a much heavier burden of evidence on Fluke if she chooses to sue commentators and journalists, such as Limbaugh, for libelous comments. In other words, if you speak up for something you believe in, be prepared for a long, hard battle if you ever try to challenge a defamatory comment.
Linda Lewis was also punished for speaking out. She filed a lawsuit against J. C. Penney in 1992, claiming that staff had beaten her when they detained her for shoplifting. As an African American woman, her case attracted the attention of a civil rights organization, and Lewis spoke at subsequent organizing meetings to boycott the store. Later, when a television station broadcast incorrect information about Lewis, her attempt to sue for libel was thwarted by her classification as a limited-purpose public figure by the Colorado Court of Appeals. Her involvement in the controversy over the Penney boycott was deemed substantial enough to turn her into a public figure, a ruling that required her to prove actual malice on the part of the television station. If Lewis had never advocated her own cause, she would have remained a private person.
The categories set forth during the Sullivan case have drifted from their original purpose of protecting free speech from influential government officials and sedition legislation. A combination of carelessness and fatal hubris led celebrities to be classed as public figures, and from that generalization flowed a willingness to consider anybody involved in public events or controversies as one. In other words, if you’re newsworthy enough for anyone to want to write about, you’re likely a public figure already.
On the surface, especially under the influence of a media-obsessed culture, this makes sense.We class anyone famous as someone who deserves a little press-prodding. The press could write whatever libelous rumors they fancied about Michael Jackson or Tori Spelling – they’re influential enough to defend themselves, right?
Let’s dig a little deeper. Consider Courtney Stodden, the aspiring starlet who sprang to fame after marrying a man more than twice her age and trailing across every chat show that would have her. Under the legal definition, we would class Stodden as a public figure – influential enough that any libel against her has to be knowingly false, not just negligent. In effect, we are putting Stodden on the same ranking of political and social influence as Mayor Bloomberg or another public official. We are saying that the public has a right to know about her life and behavior so urgent that journalists need special protection when they report on it. If a reporter falsely reports that Stodden has cheated on her husband Doug Hutchison then she has a very heavy burden to prove libel.
Does this really make sense?
A Youtube video can go viral in seconds; Rebecca Black became a household name in less than a week. We could probably argue that Black is a public figure too. The idea of being “public” has gathered prestige in the modern mind, mixed with ideas of fame and respect. A muddying of the legal definition of public figure and the collective understanding of the word makes it difficult to challenge – what celebrity would even think to claim that she is a private person?
But political influence is not the same as fame. Who are we really protecting under the current libel categories? Certainly not the plaintiffs, who often find themselves lumped into a “public” classification by the slightest political engagement, as Lewis did.
We are creating lazy journalists. Why bother to check the facts on Jennifer Aniston’s supposed baby bump if you don’t have to?
Libelous statements should never be a standard practice in journalism, even when they come about primarily through negligence, but the current applications of these categories allow far too much room. We need to re-evaluate what a public figure really is, and limit its definition far more to those specifically involved in political decisions and elected officials. Celebrities and civically-engaged citizens would not fall into this category, and rightly so, especially when far more influential multinational corporations hide behind a classification as private.
In 2006 Time magazine’s mirrored cover named “you” as the person of the year. We are all famous now, and the law has to adjust to reflect that.