Understanding Involuntary Public Figures in Illinois and Defamation Law

In the realm of defamation law, the distinction between public and private figures holds significant weight. Public figures have a higher burden of proof when pursuing defamation claims due to their assumed access to media platforms and the assumed public interest in their lives or opinions. However, what happens when someone becomes an involuntary public figure, particularly in the context of Illinois law?

In Illinois, as in many other jurisdictions, individuals may become involuntarily thrust into the public eye due to circumstances beyond their control. The legal concept of involuntary public figures was established in the famous case of involving a well known Illinois lawyer Elmer Gertz. This case sets out the framework for the doctrine: Justice Mikva in DC federal  appeals decision, Dameron v. Washington Magazine, Inc., 779 F.2d 736, 742 (D.C. Cir. 1985) provides a very good description of the doctrine:

By sheer bad luck, Dameron happened to be the controller on duty at the time of the Mt. Weather crash. As in Gertz, Dameron “assume[d a] special prominence in the resolution of [a] public question[ ].” Gertz at 351, 94 S.Ct. at 3012. He became embroiled, through no desire of his own, in the ensuing controversy over the causes of the accident. He thereby became well known to the public in this one very limited connection. The numerous press reports on the Mt. Weather crash introduced by the defendants in their motion for summary judgment amply demonstrate this. Dameron’s name and likeness were often used in these reports. See R.E. at 134–49 (reproducing articles from The Washington Post, The Star-News, UPI and the PATCO Newsletter). It was in that same very limited connection that The Washingtonian’s brief and oblique reference to him surfaced years later.
Paradoxically, the magazine article never mentions Dameron’s name or other identifying characteristics. If Dameron had not been previously linked with accounts of the tragedy, no magazine reader could tie the alleged defamation to Dameron. Indeed, it was partly because of the defendant’s public notoriety that he was identifiable at all from the oblique reference in The Washingtonian.
There is a marked contrast between the controlling facts of this case and the facts of Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448, 96 S.Ct. 958, 47 L.Ed.2d 154 (1976), a case Dameron claims shows that he was not a public figure. Indeed, Firestone butresses our conclusion that Dameron is a public figure for the limited purpose of discussion of the Mt. Weather crash. In Firestone the scion of a prominent family of industrialists was sued for divorce. The charges and countercharges in the suit were sensational and the press displayed a great deal of interest in the proceedings. The Court, however, declined to find Mrs. Firestone even a limited-purpose public figure merely because of her much-publicized divorce trial. The Court found that Mrs. Firestone’s resort to the judicial process to arrange her marital affairs was, for all practical purposes, involuntary and that the controversy, if any, over her marriage and divorce was a private one. Id. at 454–55, 96 S.Ct. at 965–66. The Court said that “even though the marital difficulties of extremely wealthy individuals may be of interest to some portions of the reading public” a divorce proceeding was not a public controversy. Id. at 454, 96 S.Ct. at 965. That is, public interest in a controversy does not make a public controversy. The newsworthiness of an event is not the measuring stick for identifying public controversy. Nor is a voyeuristic interest in someone’s private affairs an appropriate substitute. Dameron’s situation, however, is far removed from that of Mrs. Firestone. Dameron was at the center of a controversy involving the loss of many lives in a mishap involving a public carrier. At issue was the management of a program administered by the FAA, an arm of the government. Another governmental agency—the NTSB—conducted an extensive, public investigation into the events surrounding the Mt. Weather Crash. Dameron appeared at these hearings and testified for many hours about his role in the crash. The hearings, and Dameron’s role in them, were widely publicized. We think that, like it or not, Dameron was embroiled in a public controversy.

The Illinois courts or federal courts interpreting Illinois law, like other courts around the country, have recognized that some individuals, despite being private citizens, can become involuntarily involved in public controversies or discussions. In these situations, they may temporarily take on the role of a public figure for the limited context of that particular controversy. For instance, someone who becomes part of a widely covered news story or controversy, such as a victim of a high-profile crime or a witness to a significant event or a reputed mobster who has a high profile and been indicted but not convicted, might be considered an involuntary public figure for the duration or context of that particular issue.

However, meeting the criteria for involuntary public figure status is not a simple task. The courts evaluate various factors, such as the extent of media coverage, the person’s role in the events, and whether the individual has voluntarily sought public attention. Additionally, the Illinois courts consider whether the allegedly defamatory statements are related to the public controversy that led to the individual’s involuntary public figure status.

Despite being classified as an involuntary public figure, individuals in Illinois are not stripped of all protection against defamation. They still possess the right to seek legal recourse if defamatory statements are made about them. However, the burden of proof or the elements needed to be proved (i.e. wilful or intentional disregard of the truth) may be higher compared to that of a private individual due to the limited-purpose public figure status they’ve acquired.

It’s essential to understand that defamation law can be intricate, and each case is evaluated on its unique circumstances. If you believe you’ve been the subject of defamatory statements in Illinois, seeking legal counsel to assess your situation is crucial. Understanding the nuances of involuntary public figure status and how it pertains to defamation law can significantly impact the outcome of a case.

In conclusion, Illinois recognizes the concept of involuntary public figures and provides certain protections in defamation cases. The courts carefully analyze the circumstances surrounding an individual’s involvement in a public controversy to determine their status. If you find yourself in such a situation, consulting a legal professional who specializes in defamation law is advisable to navigate these complexities effectively.

You can read an interesting law review article on the topic here.

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