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A court undertakes a two-part inquiry to determine whether a person is a limited public figure: (1) was there a particular public controversy that gave rise to the alleged defamation; and, if so, (2) was the nature and extent of the plaintiff's participation in that particular controversy sufficient to justify public figure status? A public controversy is a dispute that attracts special attention because its ramifications will be felt by persons who are not direct participants. Public controversies have foreseeable and substantial ramifications for non-participants. The mere fact that a private concern or disagreement generates news coverage does not mean it is a public controversy; a public controversy is more than a controversy in which the public is interested.
Appellee publisher printed articles concerning the appellant real estate investor and his practices of purchasing neighborhoods and breaking them up and selling them for profit. The appellant real estate investor filed a defamation action against appellee publisher. The Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of the appellee publisher, finding that the appellant real estate investor was a limited public figure. Moreover, the Circuit Court found that the statements were not made with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth. The real estate investor never challenged the truth of the articles, only the finding that he was a public figure.
Was the appellant real estate investor a limited public figure?
The court held that the real estate investor was a limited public figure. The court reasoned that there was a particular public controversy that gave rise to the alleged defamation and that the real estate investor's participation in the controversy was sufficient to justify public figure status. The court found that there was widespread public attention given to the real estate investor's tactics. Further, the court applied a five factors analysis and determined that the real estate investor had used the media to gain notoriety and establish a positive public image to further his business practices. Finally, the court found that the real estate investor was not entitled to recover for defamation because he could not prove that the statements were defamatory in meaning, false, made with actual malice, and that damages resulted.