The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Tammy Wynette's widower's widow is a limited purpose public figure when it comes to discussions of what used to be Wynette's property, a split Texas appellate panel held Wednesday (McManus v. Richey). An interesting illustration of a recurring question; the heart of the court's conclusion was that,
[Plaintiff] Sheila [Richey, Wynette's widower's widow,] admitted to participating in the Investigation Discovery network show, entitled "The Will-Family Secrets Revealed," and the Dr. Drew show to discuss Tammy's will and the complaints made by Tammy's children. See McLemore, 978 S.W.2d at 573 ("'By publishing your views you invite public criticism and rebuttal; you enter voluntarily into one of the submarkets of ideas and opinions and consent therefore to the rough competition in the marketplace.'"). Furthermore, the alleged defamatory comments made by [defendant Michelle] McManus and others directly relate to Sheila's involvement in the distribution and possession of the assets of the Tammy Wynette estate.
What difference does public figure status make?
1. As a First Amendment matter, it affects the showing that a libel plaintiff would have to make to recover proven compensatory damages (when the speech is on a matter of public concern). Private figures may recover such damages by showing that the speaker negligently erred; but public figures must show that the speaker knew the statement was false or at least likely false. Other rules, such as those related to punitive or presumed damages, are the same for public and private figures.
2. A Texas statute offers certain procedural protections for defendants—chiefly, an opportunity for quick dismissal of cases that a court finds lacking in merit, and an award of attorney fees to successful defendants—in libel cases brought by public figures (as well as some other libel cases as well). That was the specific issue involved in this very case.