To prevail in his high-profile libel lawsuit earlier this year, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura had to overcome his characterization as a “public figure” or “public official,” which raised the bar for his claim. His status, for defamation purposes, invoked the “actual malice” standard, requiring him to prove knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth by the author he sued, under the federal standard set forth in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
But some aspects of the “actual malice” standard differ under state law, including who, or what, constitutes a “public figure” or “public official” under the Times doctrine. In Minnesota the Times standard applies to law enforcement personnel, public school teachers, some repetitive litigants, and business entities, regardless of size; but the doctrine does not extend to grand jurors, some mid-level supervisorial municipal workers, and some criminal offenders, among others.
The distinction can be vital to the outcome of libel and slander suits.
That, however, did not pose a problem for the former governor in achieving his $1.8 million verdict from a federal court jury in St. Paul, which included $500,000 for defamation, along with $1.3 million for “unjust enrichment.”
Defamation claimants and their advocates should minimize their prominence or significance in an attempt to avert the New York Times classification, while those defending against defamation lawsuits should try to show the claimant’s notoriety or involvement in matters of public interest or concern, which sometimes can be developed through examination of court records and other public documents, as well as reviewing social media, including self-characterizations by the claimant.
Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC, Edina