Trump University is a Public Figure

Trump University, home of the “Fighting Combovers” (I’m making that up) got some bad news recently from a federal appeals court in California.  That court decided that Trump U. is a public figure.  The consequence of that decision is that the appeals court sent Trump U.’s defamation counterclaim against a disgruntled former student back to the trial court to decide whether to dismiss the case.  The former student filed a lawsuit against the online university for deceptive business practices.  Trump U. filed a counterclaim alleging that the student’s claims amounted to defamation.  The former student asked the trial court to dismiss the counterclaim, arguing that the university is a public figure, and is required to demonstrate that she made the statements with “actual malice.”  In this context, “actual malice” means that the former student knew her comments were false.  The court of appeals, though disagreed.  It found that Trump U. – a private, not for profit entity purporting to teach Donald Trump’s “insider success secrets” – is a public figure.  According to the appeals court opinion, “Trump University has not been shy about touting its connection to its eponymous creator. . . . Trump University’s advertisements promise that enrolling in Trump University is ‘the next best thing to being [Trump’s] Apprentice.’”  In addition, by 2007, the university was engaged in a public controversy – disgruntled students were posting complaints on public Internet message boards.  And a columnist for a mass market newspaper began to report on Trump University’s educational practices and business model.  In the court’s view, Trump University’s legitimacy had become a public controversy that had the potential to affect the general public or some segment of it in an appreciable way.  That made it a public figure. And because it achieved that status, the trial court needed to decide whether the former student made her comments with actual malice.  The appeals court sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether it should tell Trump U. – “you’re fired.”