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It’s been 50 years since the Supreme Court established that public figures need to show “actual malice” to prevail in a defamation claim, so it’s appropriate that on the anniversary of New York Times v. Sullivan, a California appeals court this week explored the issue of who is a public figure.
The dispute involves the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, the teenager who went missing in 2005 on a high school graduation trip to Aruba. When that happened, it set off a tabloid firestorm and was the subject of a special Dr. Phil episode devoted to the topic. Nearly a decade later, CBS and Phil McGraw are on the verge of a trial that alleges they defamed Deepak Kalpoe and Satish Kalpoe, two residents of Aruba who were questioned in connection with Holloway’s disappearance.
The Kalpoe brothers claim they met with an investigator from the show, were secretly recorded and the video was manipulated to make it appear as though Deepak had admitted that he and his brother had sex with Holloway when in truth, he denied it.
In December, a California appeals court examined the case and concluded that the plaintiffs couldn’t claim any punitive damages because they didn’t comply with legal procedures necessitating a demand for a correction.
On Tuesday, the appeals court weighed in on a different issue — whether the Kalpoe brothers are limited-purpose public figures. One is deemed to be so. The other is not. The ruling illustrates how courts decide the difference.
A limited-purpose public figure is someone who is not famous except for the circumstances of a particular issue or controversy. The questions that go into the analysis include: Was there a public controversy? Was the defamation germane to the controversy? Was there a voluntary act in which the plaintiffs attempted to thrust themselves into the public eye?
In the defamation lawsuit against Dr. Phil, the first two questions are answered by the appeals court with a resounding, “Yes.”
California appeals court judge Fred Woods notes the Holloway disappearance receiving tremendous press attention and that the videotape of the interview was intended to shed light on the yet unresolved controversy.
But whether the Kalpoe brothers voluntarily sought to influence resolution of the Holloway disappearance is a different call.
The appeals court judge says it doesn’t really matter that the Kalpoes told lies to the police nor that there were a lot of media stories about Holloway nor that the Kalpoes filed a complaint against the Aruban government.
What does matter, on the other hand, was that Deepak Kalpoe didn’t shy away from the limelight. He gave an interview to Fox News’ Greta van Susteren and MSNBC’s Clint van Zandt and allowed his attorney to give other press interviews. Moreover, Deepak spoke several times to a literary agent and prepared a book proposal. Judge Woods writes, “These actions, considered together, can be interpreted as voluntary acts designed to draw special attention to or influence the public perception of guilt.”
But Deepak Kalpoe differs from Satish Kalpoe.
“Satish did not talk to reporters van Susteren or van Zandt,” the judge continues. “Satish did not speak to Skeeters. Satish did not seek out a book deal; Satish did not say he knew about interviews his attorney was giving. For these reasons, we decline to find Satish was a limited-purpose public figure.”
The decision that Deepak at least is a public figure reverses the trial court judge and means he’ll need to demonstrate actual malice at a trial scheduled for April 2015 — a month short of the 10-year anniversary of Holloway’s disappearance. As for Satish, he won’t have to prove actual malice and appears to be the beneficiary of staying quiet during a media frenzy.
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