The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Renaissance Faire King & Queen are Limited-Purpose Publick Figures


From Amor v. Conover, decided yesterday by Judge John Gallagher (E.D. Pa.):

[Plaintiffs'] allegations arise following Defendant's participation in the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival as a paying guest. Plaintiffs Dr. Amor and Ms. Amor are both performance directors at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival. In addition to his Renaissance Festival involvement, Plaintiff Dr. Amor is a dentist with a business practice located in Pennsylvania.

Defendant's statements allege that Plaintiffs refused to take seriously allegations that renaissance festival cast members/employees under their supervision committed sexual misconduct against other renaissance festival cast members/employees, some of whom were minors under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged abuse. According to Plaintiffs' Complaint, Defendant's statements further allege Plaintiffs "retaliated against said rape and/or sexual assault victims by, amongst other things, publicly humiliating them, calling them crazy, refusing to rehire them, and/or terminating them from employment." …

Plaintiffs sued for libel, and the question before the court at this point was solely whether they are limited-purpose public figures and must therefore prove that the defendant knew her statements were false (or likely false), rather than just that the defendant was negligent as to their falsehood:

"The question of whether a plaintiff is a public or private figure is a question of law to be decided by the Court." … "In a defamation action, the designation of an individual as a limited purpose public figure has significant ramifications: whereas a private individual need only prove negligence on the part of the defendant to prevail, a limited purpose public figure must establish actual malice by the defendant." This distinction between private individuals and limited purpose public figures is justified on two grounds: "First is the rationale of self-help," as public figures have "greater access to the channels of effective communication and hence have a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy." "Second, and perhaps more important, is the notion of assumption of the risk. Public officials and public figures in some sense voluntarily put themselves in a position of greater public scrutiny and thus assume the risk that disparaging remarks will be negligently made about them."

The Third Circuit has set forth a two-part inquiry for determining whether a defamation plaintiff is a limited purpose public figure: "The court must consider (1) whether the alleged defamation involves a public controversy, and (2) the nature and extent of plaintiff's involvement in that controversy."

Courts in our circuit have applied this standard to hold allegations of sexual misconduct constitute a public controversy "even when the controversy is 'relevant to only residents of the local community.'" Similarly, in Mzamane v. Winfrey (E.D. Pa. 2010), the court held that "[t]he safety and well-being of seventh and eight grade students in receiving a quality education without being subjected to mistreatment is a matter of legitimate public concern." While the allegedly defamatory statements in Mzamane concerned a school headmistress's failure to protect minor students from sexual abuse at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls ("OWLAG"), the court did not consider Ms. Winfrey's celebrity in making its public controversy determination. The court held that "the question of what the administration of the school knew at the time or if they failed to protect children against abusive treatment … was ripe for public comment, regardless of Winfrey's involvement in the case." …

The public figure inquiry is not concerned with the intensity of the public attention garnered by an issue. Instead, it focuses on whether the matter is one that is the subject of public comment and affects more than the immediate participants regardless of the degree of preeminence the issue generates.

Here, the controversy at issue can be characterized as such: broadly, allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace, and specifically, allegations of sexual misconduct against minors, allegedly perpetrated by Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival employee(s). This is a public controversy. Broadly, the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace is … "one of the most troubling issues of our time" and therefore "surely falls within the ambit of public controversy." Specifically, allegations of sexual misconduct against minors perpetrated by a renaissance festival employee(s) is a matter of legitimate public concern. Whether renaissance festival cast members/employees who work in a public facing event and performance, which is often attended by families and minor children, have committed sexual misconduct against minors is an issue that affects not just the employees who are the subject of the allegations, but the public who attends the event. Because these allegations of sexual misconduct in a public workplace are relevant to members of the local community, this Court finds that a public controversy exists.

Second, the Court must evaluate the nature and extent of Plaintiffs' involvement in the controversy. In analyzing this prong, this Court evaluates the dual considerations behind the distinction between private individuals and limited purpose public figures: the "rationale of self-help" and, more importantly, "the notion of assumption of the risk." … Plaintiffs' considerable social media following, along with Plaintiffs' own assertion that Dr. Amor has "a high profile on numerous Internet sites," militates toward a finding that Plaintiffs have at least somewhat of a "greater access to channels of effective communication" than purely private individuals.

The Court now considers the more significant consideration of whether the "Plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk of attracting public attention." In Chuy v. Philadelphia Eagles Football Club, the Third Circuit held that by assuming the role of a professional football player, Don Chuy of the Philadelphia Eagles "was a limited purpose public figure with respect to statements regarding the effect of his medical condition on his ability to play football." Similarly, the court in Mzamane held that by accepting the role of headmistress at a unique and innovative private school, the plaintiff qualified as a limited purpose public figure "with respect to statements involving the administration [of the school] as it relates to the safety and treatment of the students." The plaintiff's "status as Headmistress invited public comment about her performance in executing her responsibilities for overseeing the development and well-being of the students, whether good or bad." The court held that, "[h]aving voluntarily joined a novel and innovative educational institution which was bound to attract public attention … Plaintiff became limited public figure under the First Amendment."

Plaintiff Dr. Amor invited public comment about his performance in executing his responsibilities as Performance Director of an event that invites public attention and attendance, the renaissance festival. Dr. Amor, by his own admission, "has a high profile on numerous Internet sites" in part due to his role as Performance Director of the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival and his involvement in other renaissance faires. Other considerations support a finding that Plaintiffs have a "high profile." Dr. Amor and Ms. Amor publicly portray the "King" and "Queen" and the Pittsburgh and West Virginia Renaissance Festivals and have marched in the local Pittsburgh news station's Christmas/Holiday Parade. The Amors have been featured in the national "Renaissance Magazine" and attract significant attention on social media related to their involvement in renaissance festivals across the region. Plaintiff Ms. Amor is also a Performance Director at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival, and consistently appears with Dr. Amor at renaissance festivals and related events.

By assuming high-profile leadership positions for a public event that gave them authority to direct and lead cast members, as well as to exert influence in personnel decisions, Plaintiffs assumed the risk of public comment about their performance and execution of these responsibilities. Allegations that Plaintiffs failed to take seriously claims that cast members/employees under their supervision committed sexual misconduct are precisely the type of public comment about their performance that Plaintiffs invited by assuming these roles. The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs' are limited purpose public figures for the purposes of this action.