UNSOLICITED NOTORIETY: ESTABLISHING A FRAMEWORK IN THE APPLICATION OF THE PUBLIC FIGURE DOCTRINE TO PRIVATE INDIVIDUALS WHOSE LIVES INTERSECT WITH PUBLIC INTEREST

Anne Katherine Navarrete (JD'15)

ABSTRACT

In a modern era of mass society, the right to privacy continues to be one of the most controversial and threatened human rights. Intimately associated with this right is man's right to a good name and reputation as constitutive of a person's dignity. However, as conflict arises from an ever - expanding right to freedom of expression, libel laws were established to address the need to strike a balance between the right to privacy on one hand, and the right to freedom of expression on the other. With the Philippine's adoption of the public figure doctrine from U.S. jurisprudence, public figures suing for libel are now subject to a more stringent rule of showing proof of actual malice. The public figure doctrine in the Philippines is arguably broader than its American counterpart. For while the U S. Supreme Court follows the status-based approach in Gertz, our Supreme Court generally follows the content-based approach or the public interest test in Rosenbloom. As such, unlike in American jurisprudence, the public figure doctrine in the Philippines applies the actual malice standard to private individuals involved in an issue imbued with public interest. However, with the broad concept of "public interest" and the absence of an established definition therefore, any issue that may pique the curiosity of an ordinary citizen may come within the purview of "public interest". The problem becomes more complex in the case of public figures ex-post who become instant celebrities primarily because of the defamatory imputations that propel them to fame or notoriety. These considerations, together with the lack of standards in the application of the doctrine to private individuals involved in an issue imbued with public interest, essentially gives the Supreme Court unbridled discretion to determine whether or not an issue is infused with public interest, and consequently, whether or not the plaintiff involved is a public figure who has the burden of proving actual malice for the libel suit to prosper.

An examination of pertinent jurisprudence demonstrates that the Philippines generally follows Rosenbloom 's public interest test. However, our Supreme Court has on more than one occasion deviated from Rosenbloom and applied the status-based approach in Gertz_ Oscillating between Rosenbloom and Gertz inevitably spawned inconsistent decisions, the unfortunate result being an unlawful intrusion upon a private individual's right to privacy or an unlawful restraint upon an individual's freedom of expression. Without a clear set of guidelines, the Supreme Court will be given much latitude in the doctrine's application to private individuals whose lives intersect with public interest. And considering the general trend of the Supreme Court, there is a higher probability to allow the public controversy to take precedence in the characterization and thereby transform any individual in its path into a public figure. This study proposes that to strike a balance between the right to privacy and freedom of expression in light of the public figure doctrine, a legal framework must be adopted where considerations of public interest are tempered by the plaintiff's role in the public controversy. In providing working parameters in the doctrine's application to private individuals involved in an issue imbued with public interest, an examination of when a private individual may be deemed to have waived his or her right to privacy must be undertaken. After all, while public discussion on matters of public concern is without a doubt a societal interest that must be protected, equally deserving of consideration is the right to privacy of private individuals in which the state has a legitimate interest to protect. Otherwise, anyone whose life inadvertently intersects with public interest will automatically be deemed to have assumed the status of a public figure who is burdened with a limited right to privacy