Court Rejects Glenn Beck’s “Limited Purpose” and “Involuntary” Public Figure Theories in Marathon Bombing Defamation Case

CaptureThis week, Judge Patti B. Saris of the District of Massachusetts denied a motion to dismiss a defamation action that had been brought by Abdulrahman Alharbi against radio and television personality Glenn Beck. In denying the motion, the Court rejected Beck’s theory that Alharbi, by virtue of his attending the Boston Marathon and second-hand reports of “suspicious” behavior, had become a “limited purpose” or “involuntary” public figure with respect to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Alharbi and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Alharbi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia studying in the United States, was a spectator at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, and was injured by the explosions that occurred that day near the finish line. Following the explosions, federal authorities questioned Alharbi and, with his permission, searched his apartment in Revere. He was quickly determined to have no involvement in the bombing.

Most news outlets identified Alharbi as a “person of interest” who was subsequently cleared.  However, Beck, according to the complaint, allegedly continued to identify Alharbi as an active participant in the bombings and a “money man” who funded the attacks.  In March 2014, Alharbi asserted a defamation claim against Beck and the distributors of his program, alleging that these statements were false and had harmed his reputation.  Beck moved to dismiss.

Actual Malice v. Negligence

In Massachusetts, as elsewhere, the proof needed to succeed on a defamation claim will vary depending on the type of plaintiff involved. A plaintiff who is a private individual must show that the defendant acted with negligence in publishing a false statement. By contrast, a public figure must meet a much higher burden, and show that the false statement was published with “actual malice,” that is, with knowledge of the statement’s falsity or reckless disregard as to its truth. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Welch,  the Supreme Court identified three types of public figures: (1) all-purpose public figures (e.g., important politicians); (2) persons with limited purpose public status with respect to particular issues; and (3) the “hypothetical” plaintiff who becomes an involuntary public figure “through no purposeful action of his own.”

Beck’s motion argued that Alharbi’s complaint failed to allege actual malice (as opposed to negligence).  Therefore, since no actual malice was alleged, there could be no claim for defamation if  Alharbi was a public (as opposed to a private) figure.  Beck did not argue that Alharbi was an all-purpose public figure, but rather that he was a limited purpose public figure and/or an involuntary one with respect to the bombing.  On December 2, 2014, Judge Saris rejected both arguments and let Alharbi’s case proceed.

Limited Purpose Public Figures

Judge Saris defined a limited public figure as one who “voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.”  The Court acknowledged that an otherwise private person can attain this status by granting interviews and speaking to the press in the wake of similar events. For example, the Court explained, Richard Jewell made himself a public figure with respect to the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing by granting interviews in which he described his own heroics during that bombing. However, Judge Saris held that there was nothing on the limited record before the court, which at the motion to dismiss stage included only the complaint, to suggest that Alharbi had voluntarily sought similar attention.

Beck also argued that Alharbi was a limited purpose public figure by virtue of his “behaving suspiciously” near the finish line after the explosions, as stated in a Homeland Security Committee Report on the bombings. However, the Court refused to take judicial notice of this statement because it was not the type of fact that was “not subject to reasonable dispute” under Federal Rule of Evidence 201, and because the report was speculative by its own admission.

Involuntary Public Figures

Beck also argued that Alharbi was an involuntary public figure. In Gertz v. Welch, the Supreme Court stated that in “exceedingly rare” circumstances, a person may become a public figure involuntarily, by what some courts have described as “sheer bad luck.” One example cited by Judge Saris was a case involving an air traffic controller who happened to be on duty on the day of a terrible accident. This case, and a handful of others, suggested that involuntary public figure status is “a rare bird, but not an extinct one.”

In determining whether Alharbi qualified for this status, Judge Saris adopted a test developed by the Fourth Circuit: in order to become an involuntary public figure, one must “assume the risk of publicity” by acting or failing to act in “circumstances in which a reasonable person would understand that publicity would likely inhere.” Judge Saris held that Alharbi, who had merely chosen to attend a public sporting event, had assumed no such risk, and therefore was not an involuntary public figure.

Beck’s motion having been denied, we expect he will soon be filing an answer to the complaint, after which the parties and Judge Saris presumably will set a schedule for discovery.

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