Is Michael Skakel A “Public Figure?”

Of course he is.

Let me take a step back now and explain what I’m talking about.  Michael Skakel is. . . .  Wait, do I even need to tell everyone who he is?  If I do, the point I want to make in this post is, well, wrong.

Michael Skakel filed a libel action in 2012 against TV personality Nancy Grace and several other defendants, based on statements made during an interview segment on Grace’s TV show.  Specifically, Ms. Grace’s guest, legal commentator Beth Karas, said during the interview that police had found Michael Skakel’s DNA near the Martha Moxley murder scene. 

That statement was false, hence the libel action, which Skakel filed in federal court in Connecticut.  The case is pending before Judge Vanessa Bryant.

The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit under Rule 12(b)(6).  (For non-lawyer readers, a 12(b)(6) motion requires the judge to accept all of the factual allegations of a complaint as true and to decide whether, assuming their truth, they state a claim under the law.)  The defendants made several arguments in support of their motion, most of which Judge Bryant rejected as premature in a ruling dated March 7, 2014.  That is, Judge Bryant thought the arguments raised issues better resolved in the context of a summary judgment motion (in which the judge is not required to assume the truth of the factual allegations of a complaint).  Fair enough. 

But one aspect of Judge Bryant’s decision strikes me as simply wrong.  One of the arguments the defendants raised in their motion to dismiss turned on whether Michael Skakel is a “public figure” for the purpose of a defamation action.  The defendants argued that “there can be no serious dispute [that Skakel] is a public figure and that he was “convicted of murder in a highly controversial prosecution and at a highly public trial.”  Judge Bryant rejected these arguments, stating (at p.20 of her decision) that the defendants “have offered only conclusory statements that the Plaintiff is a public figure and have failed to support these assertions.”

Again, Judge Bryant did not decide that Skakel is not a public figure.  (Pardon the double negative.)  She said only that such a determination would have to await more factual development than was permissible on a 12(b)(6) motion.

In many cases I might agree with that conclusion.  But not this case.  There are some facts that are so obvious, so undisputable, so pervasively known, understood and accepted, that to put a party to the burden of proving the fact is pointless.  Of course Michael Skakel is a public figure.

(Click here, here and here to read the briefs the lawyers filed in the case).

UPDATE 3/18/14:  A few readers have asked me to explain why I think Skakel is indisputably a public figure.  Skakel is what the law calls an  “involuntary,” “limited purpose” or “vortex” public figure.  Unlike elected officials and many celebrities, who actively seek out and embrace their status as public figures, some people become public figures (for the purpose of defamation law) simply by virtue of having been drawn into a public controversy.   

Here is the key paragraph from the defendants’ reply brief in support of their argument that Skakel meets this definition:

It is black letter law that “a prisoner becomes a public figure by virtue of his crime and subsequent trial,” and “remains a public figure during his imprisonment or until he has ‘reverted to the lawful and unexciting life led by the great bulk of the community.’”  Travers v. Paton, 261 F. Supp. 110, 117 (D. Conn.1966) (citing Restatement (First) of Torts § 867, cmt. c).  See also Fuller v. Day Publ’g Co., 2004 WL 424505, at *5 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2004) (plaintiff involved in high profile criminal case was a limited purpose public figure for purposes of article written about her); Zupnik v. Assoc. Press Inc., 31 F. Supp. 2d 70, 72 (D.Conn. 1998) (wife of man accused of numerous allegations of criminal conduct was also a public figure as a result of husband’s notoriety).

I think the defendants’ legal argument is compelling, indeed so compelling that I don’t see this as a close case. 

To be clear, it is not my position that any person convicted of any crime is necessarily a public figure.  Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that position in Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Assn’n, Inc., 443 U.S. 157 (1979), a case upon which Skakel’s attorney relied to challenge Skakel’s status as a public figure.   But here is the defendants’ response to that case:

Plaintiff’s citation to Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 443 U.S. 157 (1979) does not alter this analysis.  In Wolston, the Supreme Court found that plaintiff – who was charged with failure to respond to a grand jury subpoena and given a one-year suspended sentence – was not a public figure because he achieved “no notoriety and assumed no role of special prominence in the affairs of society [because of his crime].”  Id. at 165.  Here, in contrast, plaintiff was convicted of murder in a highly controversial prosecution and at a highly public trial.

 So, I stand by my position that Skakel is a public figure.  But I would be delighted to hear opposing perspectives.


One Comment on “Is Michael Skakel A “Public Figure?””

  1. Bob Drake says:

    I think Michel is a public figure simply because he pushed his book proposal by having his agent talk to the New York Times about it in 1998. I think being convicted of a crime does not make one a public figure if the crime is still subject to appeal, especially if the libel concerns any of the issues that were relevant to the trial.


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