There is an interesting ruling in Amor v. Conover on the definition of a limited public figure for defamation. United States District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge John Gallagher (E.D. Pa.) ruled that Dr. James Amor and Ms. Patricia Amor are limited public figures subject to a higher standard of proof due to their roles as performance directors of the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival as well as playing the King and Queen at such costumed faires.
James Amor is a lowly dentist during the week but emerged as a sovereign on weekends at such festivals with his wife. They became embroiled in a controversy over alleged sexual abuse at the festival. They allegedly “retaliated against said rape and/or sexual assault victims by, amongst other things, publicly humiliating them, calling them crazy, refusing to rehire them, and/or terminating them from employment.”
The couple denied the allegations and sued for defamation. That led to the question of whether the couple should be treated as mere peasants (private individuals) or the royalty of defamation law (public figures).
In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court crafted the actual malice standard that required public officials to shoulder the higher burden of proving defamation. Under that standard, an official would have to show either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.
The standard was later extended to public figures. The Supreme Court has held that public figure status applies when someone “thrust[s] himself into the vortex of [the] public issue [and] engage[s] the public’s attention in an attempt to influence its outcome.” A limited-purpose public figure status applies if someone voluntarily “draw[s] attention to himself” or allows himself to become part of a controversy “as a fulcrum to create public discussion.” Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Association, 443 U.S. 157, 168 (1979).
In creating this higher burden, the Court sought to create “breathing space” for the media by articulating that standard that now applies to both public officials and public figures. Public figures are viewed having an enhanced ability to defend themselves and engaging in “self-help” in the face of criticism. The Court also viewed these figures as thrusting themselves into the public eye, voluntarily assuming the risk of heightened criticism. I have previously written about the continuing questions over the inclusion of the public figures with public officials in tort actions.
In this case, Judge Gallagher applied the Third Circuit’s two-part inquiry “(1) whether the alleged defamation involves a public controversy, and (2) the nature and extent of plaintiff’s involvement in that controversy.” There is little question that a claim of sexual abuse at the Renaissance Festival is a matter of public controversy.
The question, however, remained the status of the Amors. The Court noted:
In analyzing this prong, this Court evaluates the dual considerations behind the distinction between private individuals and limited purpose public figures: the “rationale of self-help” and, more importantly, “the notion of assumption of the risk.” … Plaintiffs’ considerable social media following, along with Plaintiffs’ own assertion that Dr. Amor has “a high profile on numerous Internet sites,” militates toward a finding that Plaintiffs have at least somewhat of a “greater access to channels of effective communication” than purely private individuals.
The Court now considers the more significant consideration of whether the “Plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk of attracting public attention.” In Chuy v. Philadelphia Eagles Football Club, the Third Circuit held that by assuming the role of a professional football player, Don Chuy of the Philadelphia Eagles “was a limited purpose public figure with respect to statements regarding the effect of his medical condition on his ability to play football.” Similarly, the court in Mzamane held that by accepting the role of headmistress at a unique and innovative private school, the plaintiff qualified as a limited purpose public figure “with respect to statements involving the administration [of the school] as it relates to the safety and treatment of the students.” The plaintiff’s “status as Headmistress invited public comment about her performance in executing her responsibilities for overseeing the development and well-being of the students, whether good or bad.” The court held that, “[h]aving voluntarily joined a novel and innovative educational institution which was bound to attract public attention … Plaintiff became limited public figure under the First Amendment.”
Plaintiff Dr. Amor invited public comment about his performance in executing his responsibilities as Performance Director of an event that invites public attention and attendance, the renaissance festival. Dr. Amor, by his own admission, “has a high profile on numerous Internet sites” in part due to his role as Performance Director of the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival and his involvement in other renaissance faires. Other considerations support a finding that Plaintiffs have a “high profile.” Dr. Amor and Ms. Amor publicly portray the “King” and “Queen” and the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Renaissance Festivals and have marched in the local Pittsburgh news station’s Christmas/Holiday Parade. The Amors have been featured in the national “Renaissance Magazine” and attract significant attention on social media related to their involvement in renaissance festivals across the region. Plaintiff Ms. Amor is also a Performance Director at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, and consistently appears with Dr. Amor at renaissance festivals and related events.
By assuming high-profile leadership positions for a public event that gave them authority to direct and lead cast members, as well as to exert influence in personnel decisions, Plaintiffs assumed the risk of public comment about their performance and execution of these responsibilities. Allegations that Plaintiffs failed to take seriously claims that cast members/employees under their supervision committed sexual misconduct are precisely the type of public comment about their performance that Plaintiffs invited by assuming these roles. The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs’ are limited purpose public figures for the purposes of this action.
Now that the Amors are limited public figures, they will have to show actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth. Of course, counsel could try argue that, since Amor’s status as faux sovereign was cited, he will now claim that “the King can do no wrong.” Of course, even that axiom could be challenged. See Case of Non Obstante, or Dispensing Power (1606) 77 Eng. Rep. 1300, 1300-01; 12 Co. Rep. 18, 18-19 (KB) (“No [Act] can bind the King from any Prerogative which is sole and inseparable to his person . . . . [B]ut in things which are not incident solely and inseparably to the [King], but belong to every subject, and may be severed, an Act of Parliament may absolutely bind the King . . . .”).