In the Future, Will We All Be Limited-Purpose Public Figures?

Vol. 30 No. 2

By

Ashley Messenger is associate general counsel for National Public Radio and adjunct faculty at the University of Michigan Law School. Kevin Delaney is a JD/MA candidate at the University of North Carolina School of Law and School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”1 Warhol’s comment, made decades ago, appears to be truer than ever. With the rise of social networking and viral video, it’s easier to achieve notoriety than ever before. But for libel lawyers, the question is whether being “Internet famous” is famous enough to be deemed a public figure.2

In a libel lawsuit, the court will be asked to classify the plaintiff as a public official, an all-purpose public figure, a limited-purpose public figure, or a private figure. Defendants have greater constitutional protection when the plaintiff is a public official or public figure of some sort than when the plaintiff is deemed a private figure.3 Access to the media and the ability to inject oneself into a controversy has been a factor in determining whether a plaintiff is a public or private figure. Naturally, this raises the question of whether the use of Facebook or Twitter or other social media—especially if material has “gone viral”—will turn otherwise private plaintiffs into public figures.

This article will evaluate the circumstances under which Internet users can become limited-purpose public figures. In other words, although we all may be world famous someday, we seek to clarify whether we will all be limited-purpose public figures.

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