Librarian as “Limited-Purpose Public Figure”


Down in Louisiana, a school librarian brought a lawsuit against members of the public who posted on Facebook that she, by vocally and publicly defending her school library’s having pro-LGBTQ+ materials on the shelves was trying “to keep sexually erotic material and pornographic materials in the kids section” and “advocating teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds.” A ridiculous claim, probably, but not libelous.

The court there, in keeping with long-standing legal tradition, dismissed the case. The court decided that she, by stepping forward publicly to defend the titles and, perhaps by dint of her position, is a “limited-purpose public figure.” That’s a funny moniker, because the difference between being such a figure and not being one can be a few feet and a microphone.

In Gertz v. Welch, the US Supreme Court decided that the ability to sue for libel is limited for anyone who (like me or you or this Louisiana school librarian) “injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.”

So remember that. If you’re Jane Doe the librarian just sitting in your office stamping and stickering and bar-coding [INSERT TITLE OF OFFENSIVE BOOK OF THE WEEK THAT OFFENDS FANATICS] and somebody writes a letter to the editor that says “Jane Doe the librarian is a groomer!” or “Jane Doe the librarian wants kids to have anal sex with each other!” and you’ve never stepped into the public fray, you probably have a strong case for libel and, depending on the state, damages. As a simple cataloguer, you have no “especial prominence.” But the second you show up at a School Board or City Council meeting or talk to a TV reporter and volunteer your ethical position against censorship you, despite your courage and, in my opinion, CORRECTNESS, lose a certain amount of protection when it comes to libel and/or slander. The second one becomes a “limited-purpose public figure,” the standard for “actual malice” goes way up.

So…if you’re going to go public in the name of intellectual freedom, make sure your skin is thick.

Other reading:

New York Times v. Sullivan

Gertz v. Welch

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