Can Internet chatter make you a public figure?
Apparently in one court in Florida it can.
Caught this note on Tom Biro's Mediadrop about Wired News story. This case out of Jacksonville, Fla., is about a woman who sued two TV stations for reports on her efforts to remove the feeding tube from her brain-damaged husband. As you can see from another report as well, it's a complicated case with allegations of possible wrongdoing by the wife.
But the nub of the late-October ruling is that Eliza Thomas, the woman who sued, is a limited public figure because she has been at the center of a controversy that broke out on the Internet before the TV stations picked it up.
Acording to the latest (December) issue (PDF) of the Brechner Report (HTML cache from Google) out of the Brechner Freedom of Information Center at the University of Florida, Circuit Judge Karen Cole "recognized the increasing role of the Internet in public discussion, noting that numerous articles about Scott Thomas appeared 'in the electronic media.'
"Under Florida law, Eliza Thomas became a limited-purpose public ﬁgure when she played a signiﬁcant role in the public controversy that arose over her husband."
The Brechner Report story says Thomas had "discussed [the] legal dispute on the Internet" and as a result "created enough of a public controversy" to become a limited public figure. I can't find her discussion, but several other reports say the story was first published by The Empire Journal, a Web publication out of New York that was quite active in the Terri Schiavo case. (Side note: Judging from the note on its site, it also happens to be in a dispute with the woman reported as having written the original articles on Thomas, which no longer show on the site search.)
Now, this may be a unique set of circumstances, but the North County Gazette (another New York-based site; not sure why New York sites are so into a Florida case) has this take on it from George Gabel, the lawyer who represented the TV stations: Gabel says the decision is important because it helps protect media which begins to report on Internet controversies. He says that the networks used to control the news but "it's not that way anymore. We were able to put out to the judge that the Internet is a significant source of public information to create a public controversy."
And Gabel told Wired News: "It's sort of judicial recognition of the importance of internet news. ... It shows the power of individuals on the internet."
Unclear from all this is how much Internet activity about you has to occur to make you a limited public figure. Are other conditions necessary, such as the heightened public importance and attention this case generated following the Schiavo case? And do you avoid becoming a limited public figure if you decline to take part in the debate, as Eliza Thomas reportedly did not?
Some things to ponder as not just "old" media but also "old" law grapples with these new media issues.