United States: Court Rejects Glenn Beck’s "Limited Purpose" And "Involuntary" Public Figure Theories In Marathon Bombing Defamation Case

Last Updated: December 15 2014
Article by David A. Kluft

This week, Judge Patti B. Saris of the District of Massachusetts denied a motion to dismiss a defamation action that had been brought by Abdulrahman Alharbi against radio and television personality Glenn Beck. In denying the motion, the Court rejected Beck's theory that Alharbi, by virtue of his attending the Boston Marathon and second-hand reports of "suspicious" behavior, had become a "limited purpose" or "involuntary" public figure with respect to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Alharbi and the Boston Marathon Bombing

Alharbi, a citizen of Saudi Arabia studying in the United States, was a spectator at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, and was injured by the explosions that occurred that day near the finish line. Following the explosions, federal authorities questioned Alharbi and, with his permission, searched his apartment in Revere. He was quickly determined to have no involvement in the bombing.

Most news outlets identified Alharbi as a "person of interest" who was subsequently cleared.  However, Beck, according to the complaint, allegedly continued to identify Alharbi as an active participant in the bombings and a "money man" who funded the attacks.  In March 2014, Alharbi asserted a defamation claim against Beck and the distributors of his program, alleging that these statements were false and had harmed his reputation.  Beck moved to dismiss.

Actual Malice v. Negligence

In Massachusetts, as elsewhere, the proof needed to succeed on a defamation claim will vary depending on the type of plaintiff involved. A plaintiff who is a private individual must show that the defendant acted with negligence in publishing a false statement. By contrast, a public figure must meet a much higher burden, and show that the false statement was published with "actual malice," that is, with knowledge of the statement's falsity or reckless disregard as to its truth. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Welch,  the Supreme Court identified three types of public figures: (1) all-purpose public figures (e.g., important politicians); (2) persons with limited purpose public status with respect to particular issues; and (3) the "hypothetical" plaintiff who becomes an involuntary public figure "through no purposeful action of his own."

Beck's motion argued that Alharbi's complaint failed to allege actual malice (as opposed to negligence).  Therefore, since no actual malice was alleged, there could be no claim for defamation if  Alharbi was a public (as opposed to a private) figure.  Beck did not argue that Alharbi was an all-purpose public figure, but rather that he was a limited purpose public figure and/or an involuntary one with respect to the bombing.  On December 2, 2014, Judge Saris rejected both arguments and let Alharbi's case proceed.

Limited Purpose Public Figures

Judge Saris defined a limited public figure as one who "voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues."  The Court acknowledged that an otherwise private person can attain this status by granting interviews and speaking to the press in the wake of similar events. For example, the Court explained, Richard Jewell made himself a public figure with respect to the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing by granting interviews in which he described his own heroics during that bombing. However, Judge Saris held that there was nothing on the limited record before the court, which at the motion to dismiss stage included only the complaint, to suggest that Alharbi had voluntarily sought similar attention.

Beck also argued that Alharbi was a limited purpose public figure by virtue of his "behaving suspiciously" near the finish line after the explosions, as stated in a Homeland Security Committee Report on the bombings. However, the Court refused to take judicial notice of this statement because it was not the type of fact that was "not subject to reasonable dispute" under Federal Rule of Evidence 201, and because the report was speculative by its own admission.

Involuntary Public Figures

Beck also argued that Alharbi was an involuntary public figure. In Gertz v. Welch, the Supreme Court stated that in "exceedingly rare" circumstances, a person may become a public figure involuntarily, by what some courts have described as "sheer bad luck." One example cited by Judge Saris was a case involving an air traffic controller who happened to be on duty on the day of a terrible accident. This case, and a handful of others, suggested that involuntary public figure status is "a rare bird, but not an extinct one."

In determining whether Alharbi qualified for this status, Judge Saris adopted a test developed by the Fourth Circuit: in order to become an involuntary public figure, one must "assume the risk of publicity" by acting or failing to act in "circumstances in which a reasonable person would understand that publicity would likely inhere." Judge Saris held that Alharbi, who had merely chosen to attend a public sporting event, had assumed no such risk, and therefore was not an involuntary public figure.

Beck's motion having been denied, we expect he will soon be filing an answer to the complaint, after which the parties and Judge Saris presumably will set a schedule for discovery.

To view Foley Hoag's Trademark and Copyright Law Blog please click here

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Events from this Firm
1 Feb 2018, Seminar, Boston, United States

Foley Hoag LLP and Crowe Horwath invite you to a luncheon on Thursday, February 1, 2018, at Foley Hoag’s New York office prior to the start of SBIA’s Northeast Private Equity Conference.

1 Feb 2018, Webinar, Boston, United States

Protecting the value of your corporate brand is a critical mission. As companies are increasingly asked to make disclosures regarding their efforts to address social and environmental risks, these disclosures create both opportunities and challenges for those entrusted with protecting a company’s intangible assets.

8 Feb 2018, Seminar, New York, United States

Recent high-profile sexual harassment scandals have prompted renewed discussions about sexual harassment in the workplace. Join us for a breakfast seminar focused on these issues from a legal and crisis response perspective.

 
In association with
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

    Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of www.mondaq.com

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

    Disclaimer

    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

    Registration

    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

    Cookies

    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

    Links

    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

    Mail-A-Friend

    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

    Emails

    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .

    Security

    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions