By: Joel Davis

“Public Figure” Definition Revisited

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a case seen as a blow to the
standard definition of a “public figure” for libel purposes, a
major stockholder in a failed California savings and loan has
been awarded $2.25 million for two news articles that linked him
to investment fraud.

Eleven years after a suit was filed, a Los Angeles Superior Court
jury recently found that two Santa Barbara News-Press
articles defamed Beverly Hills businessman Leonard M. Ross.

The New York Times Co. owned the News-Press when the
stories were published in 1988 and 1989. Santa Barbara
businesswoman Wendy McCaw bought the paper from the Times Co.
last year.

George Freeman, Times Co. assistant general counsel, said an
appeal is being considered. He added that the ruling was a
disappointment because, despite a high profile in Santa Barbara,
Ross was found to be a private figure and not a public one under
the standard established by the landmark 1964 New York Times v.
Sullivan case, which requires public figures to prove actual
malice – a much higher burden of proof.

“We think it’s an invalid and incorrect ruling, given that [Ross]
was becoming the leading shareholder in the Santa Barbara Savings
and Loan at a time when the savings and loans were certainly a
very controversial and newsworthy subject,” Freeman told

Sandra Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource
Center in New York, agreed that finding Ross a nonpublic figure
is “surprising.” She said that the case is also alarming because
it hinged on “libel by implication” – reporting seen as
implicitly rather than explicitly defaming. “Libel by implication
is normally very difficult to win,” she said.

Ross was awarded $2 million for the damage to his reputation and
$250,000 for emotional
distress. Other defendants in the suit are former News-
Press Executive Editor David McCumber; former Publisher B.
Dale Davis, now deceased; and the articles’ author, former
business reporter Kathleen Sharp.

Joel Davis ( is West Coast editor for E&P.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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