Matthew Lafferman, “Do Facebook and Twitter Make You a Public Figure?: How to Apply the Gertz Public Figure Doctrine to Social Media”

Matthew Lafferman (JD Candidate, George Mason University – School of Law) has published “Do Facebook and Twitter Make You a Public Figure?: How to Apply the Gertz Public Figure Doctrine to Social Media”,  Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2012. Here’s the abstract:

In Gertz v. Welch, the Supreme Court expanded First Amendment protections to defamation law by requiring a plaintiff who qualified as a public figure to prove a higher burden of proof to recover for damages under a defamation suit. The Court relied on two major rationales to delineate the Gertz doctrine: public figures “voluntarily exposed themselves to increased risk of injury” and had “significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication.” Applying this doctrine to online media poses challenges, specifically when applied to social media platforms. Many scholars have recognized that social media users have equal access to the same basic media features, rendering the Gertz Court’s access-to the-media rationale inapplicable when applied to social media. A 216% rise in defamation suits against Internet users in the last three years alone, due to the recent discovery that most homeowner’s insurance policies cover libel liability, signals an almost inevitable rise in defamation suits that will eventually force courts to face the challenge of applying the Gertz public figure doctrine to social media.

This Comment offers an approach that reconciles the problems of applying the public figure doctrine to social media. This Comment argues that courts should require defendants to overcome certain initial presumptions by clear and convincing evidence before designating a social media user an involuntary public figure or a general public figure. Moreover, when recommending an approach for courts to identify voluntary activity on a social network for limited-purpose public figures, courts should avoid defining mere access to social media as voluntary activity and instead conclude such access is an extension of an individual’s private life. This approach would allow courts to apply much of the currently existing public figure doctrine to social media and help courts avoid the negative legal and policy consequences of abolishing the doctrine altogether.

A pdf copy of the paper is available for download at SSRN here.

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