Wells worked as secretary to a DNC executive director during the Watergate scandal. A key to her desk was found in the burglars’ possession after they were arrested. Liddy, bolstered by media speculations, repeated a conspiracy theory that Nixon’s legal counsel had ordered the break-in to see whether the DNC was arranging call girls for visiting dignitaries. According to the theory, Wells’ stolen key led to a drawer of a list or photos of such call girls.
An individual is an involuntary public figure when she acts in a manner reasonably foreseeable to cause public interest, an actual public controversy occurs, the defamatory statement is made thereafter, and she is recognized as a central figure during debate over that matter.
The case revolves around the 1972 Watergate scandal. Wells worked as secretary to a DNC executive director whose phone had been tapped, and a key to her desk was found in the burglars’ possession after they were arrested. Liddy was counsel to a Nixon campaign entity, and he was convicted on multiple counts in association with the Watergate scandal. Over the next 20 years, two books were published, breeding a theory that Nixon’s legal counsel had ordered the break-in to see whether the DNC was arranging call girls for visiting dignitaries. According to the theory, Wells’ stolen key led to a drawer of a list or photos of such call girls.
Liddy became convinced that the theory was true and repeated it during at least four separate occasions: (1) a college speech, (2) a cruise ship speech, (3) a radio show talk, and (4) a website for Accuracy in Media.
Reversed and remanded.
Gertz created three types of public figures: (1) involuntary public figures (individuals who become public figures through no purposeful action of their own), (2) all-purpose public figures (individuals who have notoriety or pervasive fame for all purposes and contexts), and (3) limited-purpose public figures (individuals who voluntarily inject themselves into a particular public controversy and become public figures for a limited range of issues).
Before a plaintiff can be classified, as a matter of law, as a limited-purpose public figure, the defendant must prove that:
Additionally, a plaintiff is not a limited-purpose public figure if she makes reasonable public replies to statements considered defamatory per se under traditional state law.
1. Did Wells voluntarily attain special prominence with regard to the Watergate scandal such that she should constitute a limited-purpose public figure?
The Court found that Liddy had demonstrated that Wells had access to channels of effective communication by her numerous statements made to the press over 20 years after the Watergate scandal. However, the Court found that Liddy had failed to show that Wells voluntarily assumed a role of special prominence in the public controversy because Wells was compelled by subpoena to participate in numerous aspects of the Watergate scandal investigation. Moreover, the development of the prostitution theory was based largely on interviews with an attorney involved in the incident and not Wells. To the extent that Wells was featured in news outlets, her contributions were based on a reasonable response to reputation-injuring statements and were not intended to influence the merits of the public controversy or draw attention to herself as a spokesperson on the matter.
2. Was Wells a central figure to the Watergate scandal such that she should constitute an involuntary public figure?
In Dameron, the D.C. Circuit held that an air-traffic controller was an involuntary public figure due to “sheer bad luck” when a magazine inaccurately reported that an airplane crash was due to the controller’s error. However, Gertz held that involuntary public figures must be “exceedingly rare” and bad luck is relatively common. To determine who constitutes an involuntary public figure, courts must rely on the two core underpinnings of Gertz: (1) the public figure can better self-help thanks to easier access to the press; and (2) the public figure voluntarily assumed the risk of publicity.
Here, Wells is not an involuntary public figure because she was not a central figure in reports on the Watergate scandal.