Candidate’s Wife is Not a Limited-Purpose Figure in Libel Suit

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Libel or defamation occurs when a false statement of fact is made that damages a person’s reputation. The outcome of a libel suit depends on how injured plaintiffs are classified into one of three categories –private figures, public figures and limited-purpose public figures. The level of proof necessary for recovery depends on the status of the plaintiff.

Private figures must only prove the libel was made with ordinary negligence. Public figures, including public officials, must prove that the false statements were made with actual malice, meaning the person who committed the libel knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard as to truth or falsity. Limited-purpose public figures, who can be relatives of public figures, must have injected themselves into a public controversy and met other conditions in order to be required to prove actual malice to receive damages.

These distinctions were recently in the news when Rose Bui, an Orange County California attorney, was classified by the trial court as a limited-purpose public figure in her defamation lawsuit because her husband was a candidate for the California Assembly. Justice Thomas A. Delany reversed the decision of Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard Y. Lee, who dismissed her complaint because of the California Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) Statute that was created to lower the number of lawsuits that were initiated to chill the constitutional right of free speech. The Anti-SLAPP statute protects people who have a complaint filed against them when their speech exercises their First Amendment rights of petition and free speech.

Bui’s case began when Ngo Ky and Nam Quan, the defendants, made statements about Bui and her family on a YouTube broadcast that was based on someone else’s Facebook posting. During the broadcast, defendants said that Bui was “the daughter of a Commander of the Communist Party” and that her husband’s family members were all communists. The broadcast also featured several photographs of an older man in a communist uniform, who Ky claimed was Bui’s father. Defendants also claimed that during a Tet 2022 (or Lunar New Year) parade Bui danced and wore clothing that was red and yellow, similar to the flag of the communist regime.

Bui filed a defamation suit, alleging the falsity of all defendants’ statements and claiming intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. After Lee dismissed her complaint, she appealed arguing she was not a limited-purpose public figure who had to prove actual malice. She said the comments made by defendants were not about any public controversies but were personal attacks on her. She also denied carrying posters during the parade, and even if she did carry one, the court was unable to learn its message.

A unanimous 3-0 panel of Division Three of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed Lee’s ruling, finding “the evidence did not demonstrate plaintiff was something other than a private figure for defamation purposes.” He said, “…the limited record in this case was insufficient to establish plaintiff as someone other than a private figure.” Another reason for the reversal was that the defendants failed to put the original Facebook post in the record, which could have supported their position that they did not act with actual malice.

Delany directed the trial court to enter a new order denying defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion and granting it with respect to her claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress on May 8. Bui did not completely prevail in the district court, however. The part of her appeal that alleged emotional distress was reversed and unlike the defamation part of the decision, was unpublished.

During the defamation trial, Bui said that her father was a civil engineer who was never in the military and that he was not the man in the photo. She also denied going to a Tet parade and said she wore red to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion claimed that they were political activists in the Orange County Vietnamese-American community and that their role as YouTube broadcasters was to cover relevant political issues. They said they saw a Facebook post of Ted Bui and his wife carrying posters for his campaign at the Lunar New Year parade and said he believed “Vietnamese-American refugees and their immigrant family members most likely (would) not cast a vote for anyone who is affiliated in any way with the Vietnam communist organization.”

Two weeks later, when they learned the photo was of Bui’s uncle, not her father, and that the music had been dubbed in the Facebook post, the defendants corrected their original claims.

Delany’s opinion detailed the reasons the district court ruled in Bui’s favor. He wrote that Bui not only met the criteria for classification as a limited-purpose public figure but also to prevail in an anti-SLAPP motion. She met her burden of establishing “the challenged allegations arose from protected activity” and she showed that her claim had “at least minimal merit.” Bui alleged three causes of action against the defendants: defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. However, since she “devotes all her energy to the defamation claim,” the district court would not consider reviewing her emotional distress claims.

In the next section of the opinion, Delany went into additional detail about his ruling that Bui was not a limited-purpose public figure. He clarified that three conditions must be met: there must be a public controversy, the plaintiff must have “undertaken some voluntary act through which she sought to influence a public issue…and the alleged defamation must be germane to plaintiff’s participation in the controversy.”

None of these were present. Defendant’s argument was that the upcoming election in which Bui’s husband was a candidate met the definition of a public controversy. Delany did not find this persuasive because it would make courts “find any political candidate’s family members to be limited-purpose public figures simply by reason of the candidate’s choice to run for public office.” He also said that Bui’s “one-time carrying of a campaign poster…at a cultural event, standing alone, does not amount to the type of voluntary injection in a public controversy at which the limited purpose figure jurisprudence is aimed.”

Although Bui won her defamation lawsuit, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise wrote that her husband Ted came in third in a six-person primary.

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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