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Unpublished Paper
Speaking Freely on Public Issues: Criminal Suspects as Involuntary Limited-Purpose Public Figures
ExpressO (2013)
  • Daniel T Pesciotta

This paper discusses an important First Amendment issue that has received virtually no attention from the United States Supreme Court: the question of involuntary public figures in defamation cases. Determining an individual’s public figure status is often the dispositive question in defamation litigation as private figures need typically only prove the defendant spoke negligently, whereas public figures must satisfy the much higher actual malice standard first articulated in New York Times v. Sullivan. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., the Court suggested that it is indeed possible for an individual to become a public figure involuntarily. Despite this suggestion, the Court has failed to ever definitively rule on this question, resulting in much uncertainty in the lower courts. Broadly, this paper calls for the Supreme Court to definitively rule on this issue. More specifically, it argues that an individual who has been publicly recognized by a law enforcement official as a criminal suspect should be deemed an involuntary public figure. Such a result is justified both by the rulings of many lower courts and by the First Amendment’s aim of promoting public discourse on matters of public concern. Further, many states, in the form of anti-SLAPP laws, already consider defamation suits by such individuals to be contrary to public policy as violative of citizens’ First Amendment rights.

  • First Amendment,
  • Defamation,
  • Libel,
  • Slander,
  • Public Figures,
  • Involuntary Public Figures,
  • Freedom of Speech
Publication Date
February 16, 2013
Citation Information
Daniel T Pesciotta. "Speaking Freely on Public Issues: Criminal Suspects as Involuntary Limited-Purpose Public Figures" ExpressO (2013)
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