By Steven J.J. Weisman
BOSTON — In a significant ruling, Judge Patti B. Saris denied Glenn Beck’s Motion to Dismiss a libel lawsuit brought against him by a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian student, Abdulrahman Alharbi. Alharbi was a spectator near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013 when bombs planted by the late TamerlanTsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is presently awaiting trial on numerous charges related to the bombing, were detonated. Alharbi was not just a witness to the bombing, he also was injured in the bombing. However, in the days and weeks following the bombing, Beck identified Alharbi on the air as an Al Qaeda “control agent,” “money man,” and co-conspirator involved with the attack.
Shortly after the bombings, Alharbi was indeed questioned by federal authorities and, with his permission, they searched his home. Shortly thereafter, these same federal authorities concluded that he had absolutely no involvement with the attack and news reports about a possible connection with Alharbi and the Marathon bombing ceased with the major exception of Glenn Beck, who continued for weeks to describe him as an active participant in the bombing.
In order to prove libel, a plaintiff must show that false statements were made about him and that these statements caused damage or harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. In retrospect, it is entirely clear that false statements were made by Beck about Alharbi and it should not be particularly difficult for Alharbi to prove that his reputation was harmed by these statements, however the case does not end there.
In the landmark Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled that when it came to public officials there is an additional burden of proof for a plaintiff alleging that he has been defamed by the media. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that even if the statement made by the media was false, it would not be legally actionable unless the statement was made either knowing the statement was false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. As Justice Brennan said in that case, “We consider the case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The New York Times v. Sullivan case was limited to public officials. However, this standard was later extended to defamation cases against public figures in the 1967 Supreme Court Case of Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts.
But just who is a public figure?
The Supreme Court has identified three different types of public figures, namely, all-purpose public figures, limited-purpose public figures and involuntary public figures. All-purpose public figures are defined by the law as people who “assume roles of special prominence in the affairs of society” including people who are in positions of “persuasive power and influence.” Limited-purpose public figures are people who “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved” while involuntary public figures arise in “exceedingly rare” instances where “someone… becomes a public figure through no purposeful action of his own.”
Beck’s attorneys contended that Alharbi was either a limited purpose or an involuntary public figure and therefore should have had to prove that Beck’s statements were made with actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth in order to be successful in the defamation claim, which is indeed a difficult burden to meet.
Clearly Alharbi does not qualify as an all-purpose public figure and that was not alleged by Beck’s attorneys. They did, however, allege that he was either a limited-purpose public figure or an involuntary public figure. The standard for determining that someone is a limited-purpose public figure is that he voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues. Essential to being a limited-purpose public figure, however, according to case law is “once a controversy is isolated the critical question then becomes whether the plaintiff has attempted to ‘influence the resolution’ of that controversy.” In deciding that Alharbi did not qualify as a limited-purpose public figure, Judge Saris wrote, “Alharbi attended and watched the marathon, he was injured in the explosion, he was questioned by authorities, his home was searched, and his name was cleared in short order.” She went on to say that although he was the subject of much initial media coverage “it does not appear that he voluntarily sought out this press attention. Thus, apart from his decision to attend the marathon in the first place, the facts alleged in the complaint do not depict a figure thrusting himself into controversy.”
The judge contrasted Alharbi’s situation with that of Richard Jewell, the security guard who found the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics who later became a suspect for a period of time in the bombing. Jewell was hounded by the media that first proclaimed him a hero and then, in many instances, implicated him in the bombing. Jewell sued many media companies and most settled with him. The Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper did not settle with him and ultimately won a verdict that they did not defame him because Jewell was a limited-purpose public figure who did not meet his higher standard of proving actual malice on the part of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Judge Saris noted the difference between Alharbi and Jewell stating that Jewell “agreed to a photo shoot and no less than 10 interviews in which he described his heroics to media outlets such as the Boston Globe and CNN.” In fact, Jewell hired a media handler to represent him and coordinate his media appearances. Judge Saris concluded, “Alharbi never reached a comparable level of engagement with the media after the bombing.”
As for whether Alharbi qualified as an involuntary public figure, the judge noted first that it is extremely rare for people to be designated as involuntary public figures. She quoted case law indicating “a private individual is not automatically transformed into a public figure just by becoming involved in or associated with a matter that attracts public attention.” The standard for being an involuntary public figure, the judge said is where the individual “has taken some action, or failed to act when action was required, in circumstances in which a reasonable person would understand that publicity would likely inhere.” Applying these standards to the case, she concluded, “Choosing to attend a sporting event as one of thousands of spectators is not the kind of conduct that a reasonable person would expect to result in publicity…Because he did not ‘assume the risk of publicity’ Alharbi does not meet the definition of an involuntary public figure.” Notably, she went on to say that even if he briefly became an involuntary public figure during the short time in which he was investigated, once his name was cleared, he no longer would be considered an involuntary public figure.
This ruling tremendously enhances Alharbi’s chances of winning his case. It should also serve as a warning to all of us in the media.
Steven J.J. Weisman, a practicing attorney, is a senior partner in the talent management firm Harrison Strategies, LLC. He is also legal editor for TALKERS magazine and publisher of the websitewww.scamicide.com. He can be e-mailed at: email@example.com. Steven J.J. Weisman is available as a guest to discuss the subjects of identity theft and scams.