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Public Figure Crisis

Public Figure Crisis

Defamation, harassment, and privacy issues unique to those in the spotlight

  • Nobody should be afraid to go to a restaurant or grocery store for fear of getting attacked by the paparazzi.  Just because you sing well, look good, act on stage, own companies, or win at the ballot box, it doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to privacy.  Privacy invasions and defamation are harder to prove in court for public figures, and yet, those in the public eye are the ones most likely to have their privacy invaded and their name slandered.  We’ve represented business leaders and well-known actors dealing with online abuse and harassment, including attacks by vindictive exes and obsessive superfans.  We consulted on a case relating to the threatened release and nonconsensual publication of a famous icon’s sex tape and provided commentary to various media outlets when, in August 2014, sexual images of over 100 celebrities were released without their consent.

We handle the following:

  • Public Figure defamation

    Generally to sue for defamation there must be a false statement presented as a fact, that is harmful to someone’s reputation and published intentionally.  Each state has its own definition of defamation.

    When the defamatory statement is written, it’s called "libel."  When the defamatory statement is spoken, it’s called "slander."

    Defamation must consist of factual assertions – not opinions. When it’s unclear whether it was a fact or opinion, courts look at whether a reasonable person would have understood the statement to be one of verifiable fact.

    Truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim.

    How it’s different for public figures:  A private figure must establish negligence on the part of the defendant.  That is, they must show that the defendant did not act with a reasonable level of care in publishing the defamatory statement. This turns on whether the defendant took reasonable steps to confirm the statement was true.  Public figures, however, must take it a step further. They must prove that the defendant acted with malice.  Unlike with private individuals, the defendant’s state of mind at the time the defamatory statement was made is highly relevant. The defendant needs to have known the statement was false or seriously doubted its truth.

  • Public figure invasion of privacy

    In some states you can sue if somebody publicly disclosed private facts about another person, even if those facts are true. The private facts are those that relate to a person’s personal life that have not been published before, are not of legitimate public concern, and the publication of which would be offensive to a reasonable person.  Examples would include revealing somebody’s sexually transmitted infection, non-consensually distributing a person’s sex tape, or “outing” someone’s sexual orientation.

    However, public figures must also prove that the nonconsensual disclosure was not newsworthy or a matter of legitimate public interest.  Courts take a broad view of what constitutes newsworthiness or a matter of public interest.  They tend to rule that there is a legitimate public interest in most recent media events and the private lives of prominent figures like movie stars, politicians, and professional athletes.

    Fortunately, courts do recognize that even famous people are entitled to retain a zone of privacy relating to things like sexual activity and medical information.

  • Public figure stalking

    With the Internet creating new ways for superfans and stalkers to keep tabs on celebrities, stalkers’ ability to monitor their targets’ every movement has never been greater.

    Particularly frightening is that motivated stalkers only need to follow stars’ Instagram and Twitter feeds to know exactly where to find them.  The fear of stalkers can greatly impede a person’s comfort in the world, online and off. In some malicious cases, stalkers have shown up in celebrities’ homes or used publicly available information to outsmart security questions on social media accounts in order to steal online photos and information stored on the cloud.

    It can be particularly tricky when the stalkers are aggressing online under the cloak of anonymity.  The first step is always to report danger to the police.  However, we all know that when a defendant is anonymous, police are less likely to intervene.

    When the police aren’t moving fast enough, we can help by using the civil court system.   To subpoena websites, it almost always requires the filing of a lawsuit.   The typical method we use is to file what we call a “John Doe” lawsuit.  We can subpoena online service providers and Internet hosts once the case is filed.  The goal is to ultimately arrive at the correct IP address and confirm the defendant’s identity.  After that, we change the caption and the opposition begins.  We can seek an injunction to prevent the stalker from engaging in further frightening conduct. We can also proceed with the case to obtain an injunction to prevent the stalker from further frightening conduct, and we can turn the identifying information over to the police.

  • Public figure domestic violence

    With the constant attention of tabloids and paparazzi, celebrity relationships are rarely private.  But some of our biggest celebrities have silently suffered the same kind of relationship violence that afflicts one in four women.  We help all women who find themselves in an abusive relationship.  This includes when the abuser is somebody famous, well liked, and powerful.  And also when the person abused is a celebrity and thus worried about the public reaction.  In these cases our goal is to deliver our client to safety and use all efforts to protect her privacy.

  • Public figure sextortion

    Sextortion refers to the broad category of conduct that combines an abuse of power and sexual exploitation.  It frequently involves a demand for something (e.g. sexual favors, money, hardcore pornography) in exchange for the offender to not release sexual images or humiliating information.  Public figures like celebrities, professional athletes and politicians are frequent targets of sextortion because they have a lot of money and the release of images or information can be damning to their career and become front-page tabloid fodder.

    Victims of sextortion should speak to an attorney immediately and report it to law enforcement.  Attorneys can help get restraining orders and/or orders of protection and advocate for the target’s identity to be kept anonymous during the court proceeding.

  • Right of publicity

    The right of publicity is a person’s right to control and monetize the commercial use of his or her identity.  Celebrities and other public figures can sue when somebody uses their name or likeness to promote or sell a product or service.  It applies to situations in which a false claim is made that a celebrity, for instance, endorses your hairspray or contributes to your cat blog.  It can also apply when the defendant uses a person’s name as the title of a blog or website.

    The right of publicity has been of critical use when it comes to exploiting celebrities’ private sexual information. One famous case involved a website operator’s subscription fees to view the sex tape of Bret Michaels and Pamela Anderson.  In that case, one court held that the website violated Michaels' and Anderson's right of publicity. Paris Hilton brought a lawsuit under the right of publicity and publication of private facts when a website published her personal information (e.g. medical records, financial information, legal documents, diaries, home videos, photographs) and charged a fee to viewers. A court issued an injunction prohibiting the website from violating Hilton's right of publicity by selling subscriptions to the site.  Ultimately that case settled.