MASSACHUSETTS–A candidate for the presidency of a local union chapter was not a public figure for purposes of a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston ruled in mid-June.
The candidate, Sylvia Smith Bowman, sued David Heller, a fellow employee in the Worcester office of the Department of Public Welfare, in Superior Court in Worcester in June 1990 after Heller distributed photocopies showing Bowman’s face affixed to photographs of women striking lewd and masturbatory poses. Heller supported Bowman’s incumbent opponent in the union election.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that because the union election did not constitute a public controversy, Bowman was neither a public figure nor a limited purpose public figure. The court explained that Bowman was a private figure because there was no evidence that the union election received any public attention. The court compared the public controversy surrounding the election to that of a social club or condominium association election. The court upheld an award of $35,000 to Bowman.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Joseph R. Nolan asserted that Bowman became a public figure when she “voluntarily thrust herself into the election campaign.” As a public figure, Justice Nolan stated that Bowman should have been required to establish actual malice – proof that the caricatures contained a false statement of fact and that Heller had knowledge of the falsity or acted with reckless disregard of the truth – in order to recover. Justice Nolan called an election “the absolute paradigm of a public controversy.” (Bowman v. Heller; Counsel for Heller: Alan M. Dershowitz, Cambridge)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.