Court rules Georgia university professor is not a public figure

A Georgia state appeals court ruled this month that a public university professor was a “private figure,” reversing a lower-court decision that had found him to be a “limited-purpose public figure.” The Nov. 4 ruling allows the professor’s libel lawsuit against two community newspapers to continue.

Said Sewell, an assistant professor at the State University of West Georgia, brought the lawsuit after two community newspapers, the Fayette Daily News and Today in Peachtree City, published an article alleging Sewell made anti-war remarks to his class and had asked a student to leave when he voiced his disapproval. Sewell claimed that the article was false and seriously damaged his reputation.

A lower court ruled that Sewell was a public figure. That court then dismissed Sewell’s libel claim because – as a public figure – the professor had not been able to show that the newspapers were either aware that they were publishing false information or that they acted with “reckless disregard” as to whether the allegations were true or not, which the law requires.

In reversing the lower court and ruling that Sewell was a private figure, however, the appellate court lowered the legal bar for Sewell, who must now show only that the newspapers acted unreasonably in publishing their story.

In reaching its decision, the court found that Sewell did not fit the public figure mold.

“Sewell in no way thrust himself to the forefront of the controversy in any public forum, so as to have gained access to media outlets generally unavailable to private citizens or to have assumed any risks incident to accepting a public role in the matter,” the court wrote.

The case is ongoing.

Case: Sewell v. Trib Publications, Inc. et al., 2005 WL 2901674 (Ga. App. Nov. 4, 2005).

SPLC View: Defining a public figure is like “trying to nail a jellyfish to the wall,” said one frustrated judge and this ruling is yet another reminder of the danger to news media in trying to predict the “legal status” of an individual when it comes to libel and privacy law. Teachers and professors have been among the most difficult for courts to categorize with courts in different states coming to different conclusions.