We thought that with the mudslinging between the candidates as the general elections are heating up as Tuesday, November 4th fast approaches, as well as the recent $1.8 million jury verdict in favor of our former governor, that this would be a golden opportunity to explain what constitutes defamation.
What is needed to prove a case for defamation?
In most cases defamation requires proof of three elements: (1) that a statement was false; (2) that it was communicated to someone besides the plaintiff; and (3) that it tended to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community.
If the plaintiff is a “public figure” under Minnesota law, there is an additional element which must be proven. That is, if the plaintiff is a public figure, the individual making the statement must have also acted with reckless disregard for the truth or had a high degree of knowledge of the statements’ probable falsity. Courts consider such an action “malice” or the intention or desire to do ill will to an individual. Because of this additional requirement, it is much more difficult for public figures to bring a successful claim for defamation.
How did this apply to Minnesota’s former governor’s lawsuit?
In July a jury awarded Minnesota’s former governor, Jesse Ventura, a $1.8 million jury award for what the jury determined to be defamatory remarks in a book made by the former Navy SEAL against Governor Ventura concerning an alleged fight in a California bar. Chris Kyle said the fight was real; Governor Ventura said the fight never happened.
Obviously, based upon the jury’s verdict, Ventura had proven that the former SEAL, Chris Kyle’s, statement that he knocked Ventura out in a fight was false and lowered Ventura’s reputation in the estimation of the community – the first three elements required to prove defamation in Minnesota. But was Ventura a public figure, requiring the additional elements be proven?
The jury had to determine whether the former governor is a “public figure” meaning was Kyle’s statement made with malice, or with an intention to harm Venture? Courts have determined there are different types or different ways people can become a “public figure.”
A “limited-purpose” public figure is one who voluntarily becomes embroiled in a particular public controversy, intending to affect its outcome. To qualify as a limited-purpose public figure (1) a public controversy must exist prior to the alleged defamatory statement, (2) the plaintiff must assume a prominent role in the controversy, and (3) the allegedly defamatory statement must be related to the controversy.
Although Minnesota’s former governor seems to have a knack for getting embroiled in various public controversies, one element of a “limited-purpose” public figure is that the controversy must exist prior to the defamatory statement. In the former governor’s case, the controversy did not exist until after the defamatory statement had been made. Based upon this fact, Ventura would not be classified as a “limited-purpose” public figure.
Another type of public figure is an “involuntary” public figure who becomes a public figure through no intentional act of their own. This type of public figure is extremely rare. In order to become an involuntary public figure, the person must (1) become a central figure in a significant public controversy and (2) the allegedly defamatory statement must be during the discussion of the public controversy. To be considered a central figure in the controversy, it must be reasonably foreseeable to the person that their course of action may cause public interest to arise and plaintiff must be the regular focus of those media reports.
Minnesota’s former governor seems to constantly thrust himself into the middle of public controversies, so it seems a little insincere to argue or even explore the question as to whether Ventura was an “involuntary” public figure. Nonetheless, for purposes of our evaluation it is a fun study. To be an “involuntary” public figure, the former governor must first be a significant figure in a public controversy. Yes, Jesse Ventura is a central figure in numerous controversies, however, the key element is that the controversy must be about something of public importance. I think you would agree with me that whether or not Kyle knocked out the former governor in a California bar after some alleged unfavorable statements about SEALS does not rise to the level of a public controversy. It is, if anything, merely a bar fight between two guys with massive egos.
I believe that the former Minnesota governor could be classified as a public figure in two ways. First, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that one type of public figure includes government employees who have, or appear to have, significant government responsibility or control.[i] Even if the government job that an individual holds has such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualification and performance of the person who holds it, the individual holding the position will be considered a public figure.[ii] Based upon this definition, Minnesota Courts have determined that in addition to elected officials, public school teachers are deemed to be public officials.[iii] As the former Minnesota governor it sure appears that Ventura would be classified as a public figure.
Jesse Ventura could also be determined to be an “all purpose” public figure. This category of public figures includes celebrities and prominent social figures who are public figures that are not government employees or individuals that hold a political office that have continuous and powerful influence on public matters.[iv] Based upon Jesse Ventura’s former position as governor of Minnesota as well as his show on Ora, there can be no dispute that he would qualify as an “all-purpose” public figure.
Based upon Ventura’s public figure status, he would have been required to prove to the jury that the remarks made by Kyle were made with malice or with ill will towards the former Minnesota governor. Based upon the jury verdict in favor of Ventura, he was able to provide the relevant proof.
Taking a step back a moment from the legal elements in this matter, what strikes me as the most interesting part of the Ventura case, is that I believe that Ventura’s reputation has been more greatly damaged by continuing to pursue his lawsuit against Kyle’s widow as opposed to any falsities that Kyle may have included in his book and subsequent interviews. It appears to me that Ventura’s damages should be limited by the negative publicity he created through his pursuit of his defamation claim.