Defamation in the Area of Entertainment Law
This paper will examine the development of the public figure doctrine in defamation cases and discuss the application of this doctrine to the area of entertainment law. The first part of the paper will focus upon the historical development of the public figure doctrine, looking at the evolution of the doctrine in the United States Supreme Court. The second part of the paper will examine how lower courts have handled the doctrine, particularly in light of the vagueness of the Supreme Court's guidelines. The paper will also discuss how the defamation and libel laws have been applied in cases involving celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Carol Burnett and Carroll O'Connor. This section will also specifically address the question of whether a plaintiff needs to prove actual malice to prevail in a defamation lawsuit and the importance of the neutral reporting privilege in some of the lower courts.
The Historical Development of the Public Figure Doctrine
The issue of whether a defendant is a public figure did not arise until the middle years of the 1960s. Until that time, plaintiffs only had to prove that false statements were published which subjected them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule. The Supreme Court changed this in 1964, when it handed down the New York Times v. Sullivan decision.
The now famous case of New York Times v. Sullivan involved a New York Times editorial advertisement accusing the Montgomery, Alabama, police department of acts of racial hatred. The police commissioner, Sullivan, sued for defamation and was awarded substantial damages by the state court. The Times appealed, pointing out that while some of the allegations were untrue, the story as a whole had been confirmed by reliable sources, giving the newspaper writers and editors no reason to doubt the veracity of the story. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that when a defamatory statement conc...