And the beat goes on with this North Carolina Slapp Suit

If you thought this case was over after both sides came out saying the Michigan Judge threw this case out for multiple reasons, well you and I would all be wrong.

It appears Susan Barrett of North Carolina has had her fill of not only this SLAPP Lawsuit but the issues that seem to still be taking place on Facebook surrounding the County Shelter Animals in her State.

My question is, where are the other 4 Defendants or the 3 original Plaintiffs? Did they all go into hiding after this lawsuit or what?

At first I must say I was not sure why Susan Barrett kept keeping the “HEAT” on her as she did but after following this Federal Lawsuit for the entire year of 2012, catching up on all the players of this game on Facebook it seems that there is a huge possibility that a much bigger issue is taking place here. Is Susan Barrett onto something that we haven’t caught up on yet? If nothing else I will say that she seems to be very confident on the issue at hand and it doesn’t seem like anyone or anything is going to stop her from telling her side of the story. So for that reason alone Susan Barrett,I say POWER On as if you keep going down this same path I have no doubt at some point you will get what you are looking for or what you’re working on as with determination like this there is no way you won’t find it.

Story line listed below

WILMINGTON, NC (WSFX) – “As a physician I am sworn to protect the health of the people I take care of in any way possible,” said Dr. David Hill, Pediatrician.
Additional Links
In February of 2010, he and a woman named Kayne Darrell took concerns about Titan cement coming to New Hanover County straight to the county commissioners.

By February of 2011 both were facing a $75,000 lawsuit. Titan called the public comments slander and in the lawsuit claimed they were made knowingly without facts just to cause public friction. Dr. Hill says otherwise.

“After researching the affects of the sorts of pollutants that cement plants put out, I was quite convinced that increases in those pollutants in our area would endanger the very children that I take care of, including my own children,” said Dr. Hill.

Animals are Susan Barrett’s passion. She is the founder of North Carolina Shelter Rescue Inc. “I’m definitely a North Carolina animal advocate, I do rescue shelter animals that are on death row,” said Susan Barrett, North Carolina Rescue League.

She and four other people, including two from Southport and Whiteville, were sued individually for a total of $150,000 for speaking out on facebook about another animal rescue group called Seven Star Sanctuary. That group has people in Michigan, Wisconsin and England.

“Some of us kind of watch how many animals someone is pulling. This particular group out of Michigan started pulling a tremendous amount of animals from Columbus County. Then when we started pulling the kennel cards but none of their names were on any of the kennel cards. They were actually using a NC registered rescue 501C-3,” said Barrett.
Barrett and others then found out the same group was taking the animals they took out of the shelter to several veterinarian offices and leaving them and enormous vet bills behind. We found at least seven vets offices that cared for these animals.

We did a news story on one in Pender County that has yet to be paid in full. Other vet’s offices involved are in Robeson County and Dunn. The vet bills totaled more than a $130,000. When I called those offices, I found many have not been paid in full yet. And many have cut all ties with Seven Star Sanctuary.

It was after all this happened, that Barrett and started posting things on facebook.

“We only posted exactly what took place here in North Carolina that the Vet’s backed up with their own unpaid bills and with the kennel cards from the shelter,” said Barrett. But Seven Star Sanctuary sued saying the posts damaged their credibility.
But these citizens were speaking their beliefs. And in a country filled with free speech, some say, it’s a dangerous precedent to have citizens getting sued.

“It’s not just what’s going on with my case. I’ve started researching it we have a tremendous amount of these slap suits going on in North Carolina. They’re clogging up our court system that is already over burdened. The legislators here need to realize what’s going on and jump on board like some of the other states do and get that anti-slapp regulation passed,” said Barrett.

State Rep. Susi Hamilton believes legislation called ANTI-SLAPP is needed. SLAPP stands for strategic litigation against public participation.

“It provides them with some protection for speaking their opinion and giving their thoughts to whatever the issue is at hand without being threatened by a lawsuit by a larger industry or organization with deep pockets and lawyers and attorneys and staff that can pursue those kinds of lawsuits where in the case of the private citizen who is speaking out about a certain issue those citizens would be responsible for their own legal fees, ” said Rep. Susi Hamilton.

“I had no idea that I could be persecuted in that way for doing what I felt was my job,” said Dr. Hill.

Right now there are 28 states with ANTI-SLAPP laws. The North Carolina bill introduced by Representative Hamilton did not make it out of committee last year. But Hamilton says it could be brought up again this year.
Copyright 2012 Fox Wilmington. All rights reserved.

Link to watch the video, (please click below)


Anti-Slapp Lawsuit Blogs picks up the Michigan Federal Lawsuit Case

Exposure can be a great thing for some and a bigger world of hurt for others and is why I would say prior to ever filing in any court room ask yourself, are you ready for everything and anything to come out about your life? Most of us would say NO right off the bat but for some the warning signs are never enough to deter a bad game of poker.

Who knows how they did it, but the Defendants in this Lawsuit were able to gain presence for this Michigan Federal Lawsuit by adding a “Guest Blog” to one of the ANTI SLAPP movements websites, called the PPP. ( Public Participation Project). One would think at going to such lengths that they must have more evidence on their end than first posted on any Facebook page or maybe it’s just they are 100% committed to their stance on what brought them all together.

Either way I feel this one case has much value to all in the Animal Rescue World and Legal field, time and time again we see different spin off legal cases hitting our court room based around Facebook. However most the cases we have seen have fallen flat on their face one has to ask, it is the incident that occurred, the factually evidence or that the Laws and Laws Firms today have yet not caught up with cyber technology? I feel this is just the beginning to a back log of Facebook legal issues that will be hitting all our courthouses very soon.

To view the PPP website and Quest Blog please click here:

Or the short version without the comments:

Yolanda Rios
With each passing moment the need for a federal law to stop SLAPP lawsuits grows as innocent people are being robbed of the most fundamental of freedoms, the Freedom of Speech. Laws and court systems that were meant to protect individuals are instead being abused and twisted to the benefit of others. SLAPP Lawsuits, designed to censor, intimidate, and silence individuals while burdening them with cost of legal fees, have grown steadily and are now rampant in our society and there is very little that has been done at the legislative level to stop them. Some states have enacted Anti-SLAPP laws but many still have not. For example, North Carolina does not have an Anti-SLAPP law while Pennsylvania has a very limited one that only applies to those petitioning the government over environmental issues. While the need for such legislation is abundantly clear the average person does not understand how critical this is and the only way for anyone to understand the serious repercussions of a SLAPP lawsuit is to examine cases that have been built around them.

One such case was recently filed in the state of Michigan, to which I am one of several defendants. A Federal case was filed by a group of individuals from various states and the UK (Mary Jo Thomas, Melissa Impens, Seven Star Sanctuary and Rescue, and Penelope Shaw-Ashenhurst) against another group of individuals from various states (Yolanda Rios, Susan Barrett, Pat Lambert, Peter MacQueen, and Andie Cavanaugh) citing slander and libel based on comments made on Facebook and other forums. The plaintiffs claim that defamatory posts were made with respect to their animals rescue efforts and that as a result of those posts they were unable to collect the funds needed to not only continue their rescue efforts but also to pay the various vets they owe money to in the state of North Carolina. Upon reading this initial snippet of information here one would gather the plaintiffs have a valid case but upon further examination of the court document itself and the facts revolving around the case one can clearly see it is not only without merit but by definition is a SLAPP lawsuit. SLAPP Lawsuits are not designed to go to trial or be won, they are designed to chill freedom of speech and press by bankrupting the defendant. They are clearly designed to stifle the voice of public advocates who speak out on controversial issues.

The lawsuit itself is nothing more than 17 pages of ridiculously put together babble, full of cut and pasted comments taken from Facebook and other forums. Upon reading it one would think it was put together by a fifth grade and not an attorney. But even more disturbing is the fact that of 25 allegations being made by the plaintiffs only a handful of the comments listed were actually posted by the defendants; those few comments not being based on assumptions, on lies, or on heresy, but on verifiable facts.
Facts such as:

1. The plaintiffs listed orchestrated and participated in the pulling of mass numbers of animals from a number of shelters in North Carolina such as the Columbus County Animal Shelter. Over 2000 animals were pulled by them from that one shelter alone and to date are unaccounted for. The plaintiffs are not part of any rescue entity or organization even though the lawsuit lists them as part of Seven Star Sanctuary. Kennel cards were obtained for the past year from this shelter that show these individuals pulled animals under another organization’s 501C3. To date these individuals are still participating in these actions.

2. Seven Star Sanctuary is registered in the state of Kentucky only, not in Michigan where this case was filed. The Kentucky location has their 501c3 listed with the IRS but the Michigan location is still not properly licensed with their own state. Not before the lawsuit, during the filing of the lawsuit or even as of last week. In addition all of the events occurred in North Carolina and in cyber space, not in Michigan as is claimed by the plaintiffs.

3. The plaintiffs who claim to all be part of this organization orchestrated and participated in the creation of various chipins for fundraising. These funds were to be used to vet the animals they pulled from shelters yet instead of vetting these animals hundreds were left abandoned in vet offices across North Carolina with outstanding vet bills ranging in the thousands. One of these vets just recently came forward with their story:

4. Animals that were not abandoned in vet offices were transported across state lines, from areas in the south where Distemper and Parvo are prevalent, with no vetting or health certificates as required by law and not by APHIS licensed transporters. Health Certificate records were obtained from the department of Agriculture in North Carolina for the past year to confirm this fact was indeed true and the plaintiffs openly posted their transport plans on Facebook. More information can be found here:
The rest of the comments, which make up the majority of the lawsuit, were not posted by the defendants but rather by other individuals not named in the lawsuit, such as Shelter Shame, or on others forums, such as Craig’s List. How exactly can anyone be held accountable for comments made by others? As stated previously, further investigation into the case not only reveals how ridiculous it truly is but how it is nothing more than an attempt to silence criticism of questionable rescue tactics and the breaking of multiple state and federal laws. This lawsuit is but one example of many out there. More information about this lawsuit can be obtained here: and here:

Unless one is going thru a SLAPP lawsuit one cannot fully understand the implications or the damage these lawsuits can cause. One cannot comprehend the violation of rights nor the cost to the defendants trying to fight them. One can simply not fathom the danger the public is put in because of those that wish to suppress freedom of speech. Sadly until a federal anti-SLAPP statute is put in place, these meritless lawsuits will continue to not only to consume court resources, but to silence many advocates trying to warn the public.

This site provides no legal advice, and no representation is made as to the completeness or accuracy of the information presented. Links to news and commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of PPP.

Michigan Attorney’s Interest in NC HSUS Property Raids

HSUS of NC along with other State & County Agencies raided a property of Cathy Campbell in Pitt County NC which we have spoken about earlier in this blog, however these two screen shots have just come to light referencing the property raid that took place which lead to 21 animal cruelty charges still going thru the court system one year later.

I do find it an odd coincidence that in the center of this raid posting on NC HSUS FB page is Nicole Thompson of the Hardin Law Firm in Michigan who again is the Law Firm that filed this Federal Lawsuit on these other Animal Advocates.  ( click on picture for larger view)

Why are so many people in Michigan keyed in to North Carolina Animal Issues? Why of all places to post on FaceBook would attorney Nicole Thompson be trying to debate with the NC HSUS FaceBook page on the events that took place and who was euthanized? This does make one wonder how close is the connection of Nicole Thompson and the CCAC Rescue Team?

Is the Hardin Law Firm taking on this case pro-bono for their attorney on staff Nicole Thompson? Could this be the real reason that this case was ever filed to begin with? One has to wonder now as things have been taking a turn and it seems from the outside looking in these defendants have been railroad by the abuse of power from a Law Firm that has very strong ties to this whole case and issues that are taking place in North Carolina.

email additional information, pictures or thoughts to

Here’s What the Civil Justice System does with Frivolous Lawsuits

Attorney (877) 377-7848

Posted by Mark BelloAugust 31, 2011 12:31 PM

One of the catch phrases of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and tort reform groups is “frivolous lawsuits” – a lawsuit that has no legal basis, or is so petty, that suit isn’t justified. Unfortunately, more often than not, these pro-business, billion dollar corporate lobbying groups are claiming “lawsuit abuse” when they know the cases they seek to place restriction upon are anything but frivolous. Common sense will tell you, for example, that a “frivolous case” does not need a damages cap.

Today, I read about a case that illustrates what the system does with truly “frivolous” cases; I thought I would share it with you so that, hopefully, you can see the difference between what the tort reform groups are trying to regulate and a real “frivolous” case. The case I refer to involves an Illinois woman who was sued by her two adult children. The children alleged she was a “bad” mom. Their parents were divorced and the children lived with their dad in a $1.5 million home. They claimed their mother failed to send money inside their birthday cards, called her daughter home early from homecoming, and threatened to call the police on her son, then 7, if he didn’t buckle up in the car. The children sought $50,000 for emotional distress. The children’s lawyer was the woman’s ex-husband, the children’s father. The case was dismissed by a circuit court; the kids appealed. Last week, an Illinois appellate court ruled that the Circuit Court was correct in dismissing the case.

If the Chamber decided to lambast the filing of this case, I would agree with them. However, the Chamber would go too far in its criticism; the pro-business, anti-justice organizations would lie and say that a case like this is why the system needs to be reform and why we need damages caps and limited access to the civil justice system. But, let’s look at how the civil justice system handled this “frivolous” case.

The civil justice system has mechanisms in place to prevent and dismiss “frivolous” lawsuits, and mechanisms to punish those who bring them. The circuit court judge, who first heard the case, dismissed it without much consideration. The appeals court panel that reviewed the dismissal upheld that dismissal. Still to be determined is whether the plaintiff will be forced to pay court costs and attorney fees, a “frivolous” filing penalty that judges have discretion to assess.

The typical frivolous case ends with serious consequences to the lawyer and the plaintiff who brought it; the plaintiff who files suit, most often, loses and is assessed costs. The system built in these checks and balances so courts and juries will not waste time on meritless cases. Anyone can file a lawsuit, but the real question is whether the litigation has enough merit to sustain itself. If it doesn’t, as in this case, it will be dismissed and it will never see an impaneled jury. So, ask yourself why tort reform lobbying groups are seeking damages caps to combat “frivolous lawsuits”. Obviously, it is because they don’t want to tell you the truth. The truth? These pro-business lobbyists and public relations manipulators want to place damages caps on serious lawsuits, those with serious consequences, the ones that actually impact the profits of billion dollar corporations. The use of the buzz word “frivolous” is a smoke screen. They are masters at manipulating the truth to their greedy end.

So, now you know. The civil justice system already has checks and balances to eliminate “frivolous” cases. There is no need for “tort reform” to root them out. I blog, frequently, about this issue because I can’t stand the injustice of it. I can’t stand to see politicians, who I used to respect, taking campaign money from these billion dollar organizations knowing that the premise of tort reform is based upon lies and deceit, then introducing or voting for legislation that seriously hurts innocent citizens. Afterwards, these despicable politicians brag about their bills or their votes; they campaign on them, as if they actually accomplished something “good” for America. I can’t stand that they think it is “good” to beat up on the weak and powerless. I can’t stand to see seriously injured or disabled people left to fend for themselves because billion dollar corporations responsible for their injuries have bought off state or federal politicians. I can’t stand it because I know, first hand, that tort reform does nothing to curb “abuse” or “frivolity”; reform only restricts access and damages in serious cases with serious issues and serious injuries to real victims. I just can’t stand it!

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association as well as their ABA Advisory Committee, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

The Barclay Foundation needing help with Parvo puppies

The Barclay Foundation found themselves not only being lied to by Seven Star Sanctuary and Rescue employee’s about these non-existent health certificates, but now a huge Vet bill and to make it worse the CCAC Rescue Team took out their anger with TBF for publically telling the truth on the situation at hand and reported their Facebook posts and reported them to the State of Iowa Department of Agriculture in  which TBF License to operate was temporally suspended pending a full investigation.

We are starting to see a pattern emerge with this mean-spirited behavior from this same group women time and time again. If you don’t do as they tell you they go into attack mode and run a negative campaign on you in hopes to force you to shut up and not speak out on their reckless behavior.

So now this same group of 3 women have filed a Federal Lawsuit in Michigan on 3 North Carolina Residents, 1 in Pennsylvania and 1 in South Carolina. Another attempted attack to shut down anyone who speaks out about their bad behavior.  I do know that this case is being watched by many and let me warn everyone this is a case for trying to squash your Freedom of Speech.  How can any of us allow this type of behavior to take place in our court system? When you create issues such as what took place here, people are allowed to come out and voice their thoughts on the matter. It’s your right to have your views and to speak out when you see an injustice and not be in fear of being sued. I do find it odd of all the hundreds of screen shots that I am being sent, so far to date only 2 have been against that Defendants and I wont post them as they are not even relevant to this Columbus County Animal Shelter issue.  Please send any evidence on either side to .

( click on picture for larger view)

The Barclay Foundation, we were lied to.

Iowa based The Barclay Foundation not happy that they were lied to by the CCAC Rescue Team of Melissa Impens, Mary J Thomas and Penelope Ashenhurst and Seven Star Sanctuary and Rescue.

It seems they were under attack from the Plaintiffs in this Michigan lawsuit when TBF came out exposing that all these animals had been transported by this team very sick with parvo and not one health certificate.

Case in point that this Team does not follow the current State, Federal and USDA APHIS laws in the Animal Rescue arena.

( click on picture for large view)

For a better view of this incident you can read about it here:

Proving Fault: Actual Malice and Negligence

Proving Fault: Actual Malice and Negligence

Unlike other countries that hold a publisher liable for everydefamatory statement regardless of what steps he or she took prior topublication, under U.S. law a plaintiff must prove that the defendantwas at fault when she published the defamatory statement. In other words, the plaintiff must prove that the publisher failed to do something she was required to do. Depending on the circumstances, the plaintiff will either need to prove that the defendant acted negligently, if the plaintiff is a private figure, or with actual malice, if the plaintiff is a public figure or official.

Celebrities, politicians, high-ranking or powerful government officials, and others with power in society are generally considered public figures/officials and are required to prove actual malice. Unlike these well-known and powerful individuals, your shy neighbor is likely to be a private figure who is only required to prove negligenceif you publish something defamatory about her. Determining who is a public or private figure is not always easy. In some instances, the categories may overlap. For example, a blogger who is a well-known authority on clinical research involving autism may be considered a public figure for purposes of controversies involving autism, but not for other purposes.

We discuss both of these standards and when they apply in this section.

Actual Malice

In a legal sense, “actual malice” has nothing to do with ill will or disliking someone and wishing him harm. Rather, courts have defined “actual malice” in the defamation context as publishing a statement while either

  • knowing that it is false; or
  • acting with reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or falsity.

It should be noted that the actual malice standard focuses on the defendant’s actual state of mind at the time of publication.Unlike the negligence standard discussed later in this section, the actual malice standard is not measured by what a reasonable person would have published or investigated prior to publication. Instead, the plaintiff must produce clear and convincing evidence that the defendant actually knew the information was false or entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. In making this determination, a court will look for evidence of the defendant’s state of mind at the time of publication and will likely examine the steps he took in researching, editing, and fact checking his work. It is generally not sufficient, however, for a plaintiff to merely show that the defendant didn’t like her, failed to contact her for comment, knew she had denied the information, relied on a single biased source, or failed to correct the statement after publication.

Not surprisingly, this is a very difficult standard for a plaintiff to establish. Indeed, in only a handful of cases over the last decades have plaintiffs been successful in establishing the requisite actual malice to prove defamation.

The actual malice standard applies when a defamatory statement concerns three general categories of individuals: public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures. Private figures, which are discussed later in this section, do not need to prove actual malice.

Public Officials

The “public officials” category includes politicians and high-ranking governmental figures, but also extends to government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs. Courts have interpreted these criteria broadly, extending the public figure classification to civil servants far down the government hierarchy. For example, the supervisor of a county recreational ski center was held to be a “public official” for purposes of defamation law. See Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966). Some courts have even extended the protection to all individuals engaged in matters of public health, such as hospital staff, given the importance of health issues for the general public. See Hall v. Piedmont Publishing Co., 46 N.C. App. 760, 763 (1980).

In general, if an individual is classified as a public official, defamatory statements relating to any aspects of their lives must meet the actual malice standard of fault for there to beliability. Moreover, even after passage of time or leaving office, public officials must still meet the actual malice standard because the public has a continued interest in the misdeeds of its leaders.

Public Figures

There are two types of “public figures” recognized under defamation law: “all-purpose” public figures and “limited-purpose” public figures.

All-purpose public figures are private individuals who occupy “positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figure for all purposes. . . . They invite attention and comment.” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1972).  For these individuals, the actual malice standard extends to virtually all aspects of their lives.

This category includes movie stars, elite professional athletes, and the heads of major corporations. Tom Cruise is one; that character actor you recognize instantly but can’t quite name is probably not an all-purpose public figure.

As with public officials, the passage of time does not cause this class of individuals to lose their public figure status as long as the original source of their fame is of continued interest to the public.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures

The second category of public figures is called “limited-purpose” public figures. These are individuals who “have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (U.S. 1974). They are the individuals who deliberately shape debate on particular public issues, especially those who use the media to influence that debate.

This category also includes individuals who have distinguished themselves in a particular field, making them “public figures” regarding only those specific activities. These limited-purpose public figures are not the Kobe Bryants, who are regarded as all-purpose public figures, but rather the journeymen basketball players of the league.

For limited-purpose public figures, the actual malice standard extends only as far as defamatory statements involve matters related to the topics about which they are considered public figures. To return to our basketball example, the actual malice standard would extend to statements involving the player’s basketball career; however, it would not extend to the details of his marriage.

As regards figures who become prominent through involvement in a current controversy, the law is unfortunately rather murky. In general, emphasis is placed not on whether the controversy is a subject of public interest, but rather:

  • The depth of the person’s participation in the controversy.
  • The amount of freedom he or she has in choosing to engage in the controversy in the first place (e.g., if they were forced into the public light). See Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Association, 443 U.S. 157 (1979).
  • Whether he has taken advantage of the media to advocate his cause. See Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448 (U.S. 1976).

Keeping in mind the difficulty of making the determination of who is a limited-purpose public figure, we’ve collected the following cases which might be helpful. Courts have found the following individuals to be limited-purpose public figures:

  • A retired general who advocated on national security issues. See Secord v. Cockburn, 747 F.Supp. 779 (1990).
  • A scientist who was prominent and outspoken in his opposition to nuclear tests. See Pauling v. Globe-Democrat Publishing Co., 362 F.2d 188 (1966).
  • A nationally-known college football coach accused of fixing a football game.  See Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967).
  • A professional belly dancer for a matter related to her performance. See James v. Gannet Co., 40 N.Y.2d 415 (1976).
  • A Playboy Playmate for purpose of a parody. See Vitale v. National Lampoon, Inc., 449 F. Supp 442 (1978).

Courts have found the following individuals not to be limited-purpose public figures (and therefore private figures):

  • A well-known lawyer and civic leader engaged in a very public trial involving police brutality.  See Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1972).
  • A socialite going through a divorce who both collected press clippings on herself and held press conferences regarding the divorce. See Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448 (U.S. 1976).
  • A Penthouse Pet for purposes of parody.  See Pring v. Penthouse Int’l Ltd., 695 F.2d 438 (1982).

Individuals who are considered to be limited-purpose public figures remain so as long as the public has an “independent” interest in the underlying controversy. Unlike all-purpose public figures, it is relatively easy for a limited-purpose public figure to lose his status if the controversy in which he is involved has been largely forgotten. But most will still maintain their status. For example, a woman who had publicly dated Elvis Presley over a decade earlier, but who had since married and returned to “private” life, was found to remain a public figure for stories related to her relationship with Presley. See Brewer v. Memphis Publishing Co., 626 F.2d. 1238 (5th Cir. 1980).

Evaluating Public Officials, Public Figures, and Limited-Purpose Public Figures

A public official is a person who holds a position of authority in the government and would be of interest to the public even if the controversy in question had not occurred.

  • The actual malice standard extends to statements touching on virtually any aspect of the public official’s life.
  • Even after passage of time or leaving office, public officials must still meet the actual malice standard because the public has a continued interest in the misdeeds of its leaders.

All-purpose public figuresare those whose fame reaches widely and pervasively throughout society.

  • The actual malice standard extends to statements involving virtually any aspect of their private lives.
  • Passage of time does not affect their status as public figures as long as the source of their fame is of continued interest to the public.

A limited-purpose public figureis either:

    1. One who voluntarily becomes a key figure in a particular controversy, or
    2. One who has gained prominence in a particular, limited field, but whose celebrity has not reached an all-encompassing level.
  • The actual malice standard applies only to subject matter related to the controversy in question or to the field in which the individual is prominent, not to the person’s entire life.
  • Passage of time does not affect an individual who has achieved fame through participation in a controversy as long as the public maintains an “independent” interest in the underlying controversy.

See this Chart of Public vs Private Individuals for additional examples.

Defining who is a public figure for purposes of First Amendment protections is a question of federal constitutional law, and therefore the federal courts say on the matter is decisive and binding on state courts. Accordingly, state courts cannot remove public-figure status from those who have been deemed public figures by the federal courts, but states canbroaden the scope of the the classification. For example, while the Supreme Court has not spoken on the status of educators, most states have recognized teachers as a class of public figures. But some states, for example California, have not done so. Consult your State Law: Defamation section for specific guidelines on your jurisdiction.

Negligence Standard and Private Figures

Those who are not classified as public figures are considered private figures. To support a claim for defamation, in most states a private figure need only show negligence by the publisher, a much lower standard than “actual malice.” Some states, however, impose a higher standard on private figures, especially if the statement concerns a matter of public importance. You should review your state’s specific law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide for more information.

A plaintiff can establish negligence on the part of the defendant by showing that the defendant did not act with a reasonable level of care in publishing the statement at issue. This basically turns on whether the defendant did everything reasonably necessary to determine whether the statement was true, including the steps the defendant took in researching, editing, and fact checking his work. Some factors that the court might consider include:

  • the amount of research undertaken prior to publication;
  • the trustworthiness of sources;
  • attempts to verify questionable statements or solicit opposing views; and
  • whether the defendant followed other good journalistic practices.

While you can’t reduce your legal risks entirely, if you follow good journalistic practices you will greatly reduce the likelihood that you will be found negligent when publishing a defamatory statement. Review the sections in this guide on Practical Tips for Avoiding Liability Associated with Harms to Reputation and Journalism Skills and Principles for helpful suggestions.

Credits: Citizen Media Law Project