Cases Dealing With Defamation of a Public Figure

In a defamation case, if the plaintiff is either a public official or a public figure, he must establish a higher degree of fault to prove defamation; he must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, that is, with "knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." WFAA-TV, Inc. v. McLemore, 978 S.W.2d 568, 571 (Tex. 1998), cert. denied, 526 U.S. 1051, 143 L. Ed. 2d 519, 119 S. Ct. 1358 (1999). The question of whether someone is a public figure is a matter of constitutional law for the court to decide. WFAA-TV, 978 S.W.2d at 571 (citing Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 88, 15 L. Ed. 2d 597, 86 S. Ct. 669 (1966)). There are two types of public figures: general purpose and limited purpose public figures. Id. (citing Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 347, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789, 94 S. Ct. 2997 (1974)). A general purpose public figure is an individual who achieves such pervasive fame or notoriety that he becomes a public figure in all contexts and for all purposes. Id.; see also Gertz, 418 U.S. at 351. General purpose public figures have assumed so prominent a role in the affairs of society that they have become celebrities. WFAA-TV, 978 S.W.2d at 571; TSM AM-FM TV v. Meca Homes, Inc., 969 S.W.2d 448, 453 (Tex. App.-El Paso 1998, pet. denied). Absent clear evidence of general fame or notoriety and pervasive involvement in the affairs of society, one should not be characterized as a general purpose public figure. Gertz, 418 U.S. at 352; WFAA-TV, 978 S.W.2d at 571. A three part test applies to determine whether someone is a limited purpose public figure. First, the controversy at issue must be public both in the sense that people are discussing it and people other than the immediate participants in the controversy are likely to feel the impact of its resolution. Second, the plaintiff must have more than a trivial or tangential role in the controversy. Third, the alleged defamation must be germane to the plaintiff's participation in the controversy. WFAA-TV, 978 S.W.2d at 571 (citing Trotter v. Jack Anderson Enters., Inc., 818 F.2d 431, 433 (5th Cir. 1987)); see also Waldbaum v. Fairchild Pub., Inc., 201 U.S. App. D.C. 301, 627 F.2d 1287, 1296-98 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 898, 66 L. Ed. 2d 128, 101 S. Ct. 266 (1980). Limited purpose public figures achieve their status by "thrusting themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved," or because they "voluntarily inject [themselves] or [are] drawn into a particular public controversy." San Antonio Exp. News v. Dracos, 922 S.W.2d 242, 251 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1996, no writ) (citing Gertz, 418 U.S. at 345, 351). The inquiry turns on the nature and extent of an individual's or corporation's "participation in the particular controversy giving rise to the defamation." Id. (citing Gertz, 418 U.S. at 352).