The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

Hiring Reputation Management Co. Made Rabbi Limited Public Figure, Making It Harder for Him to Win Libel Case


From Krawatsky v. Avrunin, decided Friday by Judge Christopher Fogleman (Md. Cir. Ct.):

From 2010 to 2015, Plaintiff Steven Krawatsky ("Rabbi K") was a head counselor at Camp Shoresh, a summer camp for children in Adamstown, Frederick County, Maryland. The parents of three boys who had attended the summer camp during that time have alleged that Rabbi K had sexually assaulted the boys. In 2017, Defendant Hannah Dreyfus …, a reporter for The Jewish Week, Inc. …, began investigating the allegations. As a result of Ms. Dreyfus's investigation, on January 17, 2018, Jewish Week published an editorial drafted by its Editor and two articles authored by Ms. Dreyfus.

Rabbi K sued Dreyfus and Jewish Week for various defamation-related claims; the court held, in relevant part, that Rabbi K was a limited purpose public figure, because he had voluntarily injected himself into an existing public controversy:

The record is clear that the allegations against Rabbi K did not concern only the boys and their families. The outcome of this controversy would certainly affect the general public or some segment of it in an appreciable way. The controversy concerned the safety of children. Moreover, it concerned broader policy questions about how Jewish institutions should best protect children upon learning of a sexual abuse allegation against one of its employees. The Court concludes that there was a particular public controversy [preexisting the allegedly defamatory statements' publication] that gave rise to the alleged defamation…. The Krawatskys hired the public relations consultant in November 2017 "to help restore the damage to Rabbi K's online reputation caused by the controversy." The articles and editorial were published two months later, on January 17, 2018. The controversy continued unabated following the public relations consultant's November 2017 retention, through the articles' and editorial's January 17, 2018 publication.

Using the media to gain notoriety and establish a positive public image can confer limited public figure status. It is beyond dispute that the professional reputation management consultant's objective was to influence and counter the adverse impact of the unfavorable publicity that attended the Newspaper Defendants' two Articles and Editorial. Rabbi K's public relations campaign did not substantively respond to the allegations but rather was a more generalized effort to improve his image. Its objective was not to reply to the allegations, but rather to silence the negative information. By waging this public relations campaign, Rabbi K became a public figure in terms of First Amendment protection.

Because Rabbi K was a limited-purpose public figure, he had to show "clear and convincing evidence that the Newspaper Defendants acted with actual malice" (rather than just negligently), and he couldn't.

Congratulations to Nathan E. Siegel, Chelsea T. Kelly & Robert D. Balin of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who represented the Newspaper Defendants, and thanks to the Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) MediaLawDaily for the pointer.