- Part of the origin of the “public figure” in libel law began with the 1962 Alabama-Georgia football game and the legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
The game between Alabama and Georgia tonight on ESPN calls to mind a game between the same two teams 46 years ago that had an important impact — not on college football but on the shape of libel law in the United States.
The teams were coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant (Alabama) and Wally Butts (Georgia). A Saturday Evening Post story about an alleged collaboration between them led to a libel suit that eventually became part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s formulation of the idea of the “public figure.”
Here’s the story (adapted from my Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, published by Allyn and Bacon):
When the Supreme Court decided the New York Times v. Sullivan case in 1964, it gave extra protection to the media against libel suits by public officials. The court was seeking to encourage vigorous debate and discussion on issues of the day. But vigorous debate often involves more than public officials. Three years after the Sullivan decision, the court expanded the actual malice standard of proof to include “public figures.”
It took two major college football coaches and a retired Army general to make this happen. In the fall of 1962, Alabama’s football team shellacked Georgia, 35-0. The next year, the Saturday Evening Post published an article about how the head coaches, Paul “Bear” Bryant of Alabama and Wally Butts of Georgia, colluded to fix the game. The article, “The Story of a College Football Fix,” alleged that Butts had called Bryant during the week before the game and outlined what Georgia had planned the offensive and defensive plays the Bulldogs planned to run during the game. Butts sued the Post and won a $3 million judgment, which was reduced to $460,000 by an appeals court.
In a separate incident earlier in 1962, the Associated Press reported that retired Army Gen. Edwin Walker had encouraged people to riot when the first black student attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Walker sued the AP in Texas and won a judgment of $800,000.
Both cases came to the Supreme Court at the same time, and as it occasionally does, the court combined the cases into one decision.
The court ruled that even though none was the plaintiffs in either of the cases held public office, they were “public figures”; that is, they were people involved in important issues of interest to the public. Therefore, if they were going to sue for libel, they had to prove actual malice, just as public officials had to prove it.
The Supreme Court did not define precisely who a “public figure” is, and courts have been struggling with the concept ever since. In 2003, for example, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel ruled that a former Navy lieutenant was a “limited purpose” public figure.
Cary Lohrenz was one of the first women trained to fly combat aircraft for the U.S. Navy in the early 1990s. In 1996 she sued the Center for Military Readiness, the Washington Times and the San Diego Union for alleging that she was an substandard pilot. The appeals court said that her position as one of the first women to fly combat aircraft made her a public figure and that she had to prove actual malice.
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