Dan Shaw – Question,
Just wondering if you could provide me with some clarification on appropriate discussion.
For example, I’m assuming that it would be acceptable to criticize Jim Leyland, coach of the Tigers (or maybe not). However, would it then be acceptable to criticize, say, a local high school coach for his/her coaching abilities? Neither are public officials and in fact, I would argue that a professional sports team is more of a private company than a public educational institution’s employee (coach). Just wondering for future reference, thanks in advance.
You're raising a great question. Entire college courses cover this subject. Here's a short version. I'm not a lawyer, so this is the lay version:
The Supreme Court has essentially created three classes of people: Public officials, public figures, and everyone else. The "public figure" class is divided further into two categories: people who are public figures by virtue of their job or public role, and people who become public figures because they're thrust into the public limelight by a specific incident or event. An example would be a local business owner who is arrested for sex-related charges. He was just a private citizen before the arrrest, but he becomes a limited public figure while his case is in the limelight.
There have been many court cases determining who is a public official, who is a public figure and who is a private citizen. The issue hasn't been entirely resolved - there still are gray areas. But here are some examples that are fairly well accepted.
Public officials are people who are elected to their positions, or hold appointed positions that are so prominent that they're essentially the same thing. The president, the governor, the mayor, the sheriff, the chief of police, etc.
Public figures are people who are clearly in the public limelight, even though they weren't elected. Baseball players and manager, movie stars, CEOs of major corporations, etc. So your example of Jim Leyland falls into this category. He is clearly a public figure.
The reason this is important is that the Supreme Court has set a very different standard for what is appropriate criticism of public officials and figures, as opposed to the rest of us. You can say anything you want about Jim Leyland and in order to win a libel lawsuit, he would essentially have to not only prove it isn't true, but also prove that you said it with malicious intent. In other words, that you knew it wasn't true and said it just to damage him. All a private citizen has to prove is that it isn't true and that it damaged him/her in some way.
Your example of a high school coach is another good one. I don't think a First Amendment lawyer, even a real expert, would be willing to give a flat opinion that a high school coach is a public figure or not. It just depends. The coach of a high profile football team, who is often in the news, being interviewed on television, etc., probably is a public figure. The volleyball coach may not be. It's a gray area. So when Monroe High School's volleyball coach was criticized on MonroeTalks.com, I was a lot more worried than I would have been if it had been the University of Michigan's football coach. He's clearly a public figure.
The limited public figure status is even cloudier. A police officer working the street beat probably isn't a public figure. But when he becomes the lead detective handling a sensational murder trial, quoted daily in the newspaper and on televison, he probably becomes a public figure - but only as it relates to that case. He's not fair game for criticism of his private life - unless of course it's true.
Truth is pretty much an absolute defense against libel.
This also may apply to the volleyball coach. She may be a limited public figure - only as the criticism relates to her performance of her coaching job. She would probably be a private citizen when it came to anything not related to her coaching.
That's probably more than you wanted to know. But don't hesitate if you want further clarification. It's actually kind of relevant for this discussion forum. People who publicly attack another private citizen should realize that a libel lawsuit is a possibility.