Net Chat Anoints Public Figure (Wired)

By Randy Dotinga

Can mention on the net turn an ordinary citizen into a public figure with severely limited abilities to fight libel and defamation lawsuits? According to a Florida judge’s ruling — perhaps the first of its kind in the United States — the answer is yes.

In an Oct. 21 ruling, Florida circuit court Judge Karen Cole threw out a defamation case against two TV stations because she deemed the plaintiff — a Jacksonville woman — to be a public figure who had been subject to “substantial” internet debate.

In the eyes of the law, public figures are usually politicians or celebrities, who have limited rights to claim that they’ve been libeled or defamed, thanks to a 1964 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among other things, Cole said plaintiff Eliza Thomas had become a public figure because there had been “substantial public debate” regarding her and her husband on the internet. (more…)