The question of whether someone is a Public Figure
I still am very upset that a young woman’s name was dragged through the mud by the Lowell SUN and others because a personal matter was made public and the enemies of the Supt. leaked this young woman’s name.
Whether the people who scream for Transparency in Gov’t (as long has your politically connected pals aren’t included) agree or not I do not believe this young women who was working as a secretary at Greater Lowell was considered a public figure and think that the SUN and the people who leaked her name should be made to pay in some way for the damage this leak has caused the young women and her reputation.
Whether she did or did not mishandled funds, it was clear from an internal report that this person was found NOT to have criminal intent but felt that she was responsible anyway and she chose to resign because of that. Since no legal action was involved it appears to me to be a personal issue and that I don’t believe makes her a public figure.
Obviously I am neither A Lawyer or Qualified Journalist nor do I play one on TV/Radio or the BLOG but I looked up the “Legal Definition” of Public Figure and found the following:
On USLegal.com -Definitions
Public figure - is a person of great public interest or fame, such as a politician, celebrity, or sports hero. The term usually used in the context of libel and defamation actions, where the standards of proof are higher if the party claiming defamation is a public figure and therefore has
to prove disparaging remarks were made with actual malice.
A person may also be considered a “limited purpose” public figure by having thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved. The determination is made on a case-by-case basis, taking the particular facts into account.
This young woman didn’t willingly thrust herself into any spotlight or to the forefront but was placed there by Public officials during a public meeting that led to several personal matters being made public and directly resulting in the leaking of her name and NOT the names of other employees who also apparently mishandled funds simply because she was related to the Superintendent. I think it was wrong and the people who have leaked this young woman’s name should be ashamed of themselves.
I made an inquiry to the MA. State Office of the Attorney General to see if MA. has a standard definition for who is or isn’t a public figure. I was received the following reply:
“I regret to inform you that the Office of the Attorney General is unable to provide you with the legal opinion you have requested This Office is limited to providing opinions pursuant to G.L. c. 12, §§ 3, 6, and 9, to officials acting in their official capacity”
Thankfully Lowell and the surrounding towns have many qualified Attorneys so I asked a well known , well respected Attorney if the State of Massachusetts had a set standard of who is considered a public figure and about a persons right to privacy and when that right is lost. When does a private citizen become a public figure? Is an employee of the city, state or federal Gov’t automatically considered a public figure because they are paid with tax dollars?
The Attorney was kind enough to provide me with the above attached response and if I am reading it correctly the argument could be made that since her name was never made public by the School Administration because they consider it a personal matter, the question remains if the leaking of her name justify’s her being considered a public figure? Is a personal matter “News”? and if so, why isn’t the SUN trying to get the names of the other two employees? Hopefully she gets herself a good attorney and they figure that out.
However because she was a public employee and because the entire situation may be able to be justified as “News” because it involved a public school and it came to light at a public meeting, this young women may have no recourse.
Here are a few highlights from the response:
“That designation [public figure] may rest on either of two alternate bases. In some instances an individual may achieve such pervasive fame or notoriety that he becomes a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts.
More commonly, an individual voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues. In either case such persons assume special prominence in the resolution of public questions.”
Massachusetts citizens have a statutory right to privacy but public employees have by case decision diminished expectations of privacy.
In Massachusetts, there is a statutory right of privacy under M.G.L.A. c. 214, § 1B. Enacted in 1973, the Massachusetts Privacy Act, M.G.L.A. c. 214, § 1B, provides
“A person shall have a right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy. The superior court shall have jurisdiction in equity to enforce such right and in connection therewith to award damages.”
However, there is no violation of M.G.L.A. c. 214, § 1B if the invasion of privacy is found to be reasonable or justified under all the circumstances. Schlesinger v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 409 Mass. 514, 567 N.E.2d 912 (1991).
More specifically, the statutory privacy right is circumscribed by the constitutionally protected right of others to publish matters of legitimate public concern. See Jones v. Taibbi, 400 Mass. 786, 801, 512 N.E.2d 260 (1987); and Boston Herald, Inc. v. Sharpe, 432 Mass. 593, 612, 737 N.E.2d 859 (2000).
Matters included within the scope of legitimate public concern are those of the kind continuously regarded as “news.” Peckham v. Boston Herald, Inc., 48 Mass. App. Ct. 282, 287-288, 719 N.E.2d 888 (1999).
Public employees, by virtue of their public employment, have diminished expectations of privacy with respect to the public records law