By "public figure," I mean people who can be legally photographed and written/talked about in the media (including self-published books).

All elected officials are considered public figures, and I believe the same applies to military personnel and even public school teachers.

But what about union officials, or shop stewards?

In fact, I was going to ask if shop stewards and higher ranking union officials are public figures, but I decided to first ask if there's some kind of guideline or manual that spells out which people are fair game for the press.

  • There isn't any official "manual"; issues like this are decided case-by-case based on relatively vague legal definitions. You might take a look at dmlp.org/legal-guide/proving-fault-actual-malice-and-negligence, however. Oct 30 '19 at 1:21
  • I would be very surprised if being in the military or being a public school teacher causes someone to be a public figure in every context.
    – phoog
    Oct 30 '19 at 15:16

Whether they are public figures or not, you are legally permitted to photograph anyone you want, and you are free to write about anyone you want. This includes union oficials and shop stewards.

Of course, this does not mean that there are no restrictions in how you photograph or write about someone. You may not break into someone's house to take a picture of them, and you may not make defamatory statements about them.

In the event you do cross some sort of line in your documentary pursuits, you may have increased legal protections if the subject is a "public figure" in a legal sense, in which case the subject would need to prove actual malice to obtain a defamation judgment.

There are several types of public figures:

  • public officials, which includes probably all elected officials, as well as those who occupy government positions with "such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds it, beyond the general public interest in the qualifications and performance of all government employees," Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966);

  • all-purpose public figures, people for whom there is "clear evidence of general fame or notoriety in the community, and pervasive involvement in the affairs of society," legal remedies for defamation become less necessary, Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974); and

  • limited-purpose public figures, who are treated as public figures in cases where "the nature and extent of an individual's participation in the particular controversy giving rise to the defamation" indicates that such treatment is appropriate, id.

So there are many different kinds of public figures. One person could be a private figure in one case and a public figure in another, or he could be a private figure one day and become a public figure the next. Donald Trump, for instance, was a private figure as a child, but at some point early in his career, he became at least a limited-purpose public figure, where he would have a harder time bringing a libel case based on allegations about his business conduct.

Eventually, through the growth in his business and media empire, as well as his deliberate pursuit of media coverage, and no later than the time he became a candidate for president, he became an all-purpose public figure, requirnig him to prove actual malice in any case.

Finally, upon inauguration to the presidency, he became a public official, which carries that same increased evidentiary burden in defamation cases.

  • I don't know your specific circumstances, but it sounds absurd.
    – bdb484
    Nov 4 '19 at 14:18
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    @some_guy632: This would be "limited public figure" in your association with the online handle and your public disclosure of private life information. If the person identifies you by real identity information and makes a false statement of fact about your real identity's character, there is a case to be made that the the private persona is not the same as the public persona and that the defamation ignored that fact, the defamed person might still be considered a private person with regards to the defamation.
    – hszmv
    Nov 4 '19 at 15:44
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    Additionally, whether the defamed person is a private or public person only matters in that public persons must prove that the person making the defamatory statement made the false statement with malicious intent OR negligent disregard for the truth (i.e. they lied that a person committed a crime, or that they made a mistake that a basic fact check or simple investigation would have shown that the statement was false.).
    – hszmv
    Nov 4 '19 at 15:54

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