Public Figures vs. Private Figures: Which one are you?

Under Supreme Court precedent, defamation law treats claims made by private and public figures differently. One rationale explained by the Supreme Court for treating claims by these individuals differently is the need to foster public debate and free, uninhibited discussion concerning contentious persons in the public eye and hot button issues of public concern. Depending on whether a party is considered a private or public figure plaintiff under defamation law, he or she will enjoy greater or lesser protection and a different standard of liability when bringing a claim for defamation of character.


In 1964, the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan introduced the framework for the disparate treatment of public and private plaintiffs in libel cases. Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that there were two types of defamation plaintiffs, public and private, and that the First Amendment established a different burden of proof needed to be met in order to succeed in a defamation claim—one for each type of plaintiff. In its subsequent decisions, the Supreme Court has refined and delineated the differing standards applicable to public and private libel plaintiffs.

Public Figures vs. Private Figures

The Supreme Court has defined public figures as those who hold government office and those who have achieved a role of special prominence in the affairs of society by reason of notoriety of their achievements or vigor and success with which they seek public's attention. Because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution applies to speech concerning public figures, the Supreme Court’s definition of a public figure, rather than state law, controls the determination of whether a plaintiff is a "public figure" for purposes of defamation.

Private figures are those ordinary individuals who have not sought out the public spotlight or thrust themselves into the discussion of highly public and contentious issues. By not seeking the limelight, courts recognize that private figures have not invited attention or comment on their actions. As such, private figures are generally entitled to a higher degree of protection and privacy under the First Amendment and state law.

What is the significance between the two?

If a libel plaintiff is a public figure, he or she must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant acted with actual malice in making the defamatory statement. If the plaintiff is a private figure, the First Amendment does not impose any restriction on the liability standards that states may adopt. Under Illinois law, a private figure plaintiff need only prove that the defendant was negligent in making the defamatory statement to succeed.

The Supreme Court has reasoned that the imposition of this heightened burden on public figure plaintiffs is justified because public figures not only have placed themselves in a position inviting commentary and scrutiny, but also have significantly greater access to channels of effective communication, thus providing a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements and rectify any damage to their reputation.

Whether you are a plaintiff who has been defamed or a defendant being accused of libeling someone, it is always recommended to seek the counsel and representation of an experienced defamation law attorney. Our Chicago defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern.

You can view here a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense. Here is an arbitration decision where we won a decision in favor our client after we presented evidence and cross-examined the used car dealer defendant at a hearing where we proved that our client’s twenty plus YouTube videos voicing his opinion that a used car dealer committed consumer fraud were true, were protected opinions under the First Amendment, or involved at most only inconsequential inaccuracies. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million suit for libel per se in federal district court. You can read about that case here.

The attorneys at Lubin Austermuehle have over thirty years of experience defending and prosecuting defamation, slander libel and cyber smear lawsuits. We are knowledgeable regarding the changes and complexities of this evolving area of the law. We are committed to fighting for our clients' rights in the courtroom and at the negotiating table. Conveniently located in Chicago and Elmhurst, Illinois, we have successfully litigated non-compete and trade secret and covenant not to compete cases for clients all over the Chicago area. To schedule a consultation with one of our skilled attorneys, you can contact us online or give us a call at 630-333-0333.

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