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What is a Cause Célèbre?

Erik Menendez, who, along with his brother, was convicted of murdering his parents, is a cause celebre.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 September 2014
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An incident or issue which attracts a great deal of public attention and commentary is known as a cause célèbre. The term may also be used to refer to a notable legal case or incident. Often, a cause célèbre is accompanied with notoriety, since unpleasant incidents and issues tend to attract more attention and controversy. Many people and newspapers use the term, usually in reference to political issues and incidents, although non-political events may become causes célèbres as well.

The term has been lifted directly from the French language, and it means “a celebrated case.” The widespread use of the term in France began in the 1700s, when a publisher put together a compendium of famous and interesting legal cases. The concept of a cause célèbre spread over the Channel to England, and it entered common usage. As communications and news delivery systems around the world increased, so did the number of causes célèbres, as more people became aware of them.

A well known legal case might become a cause célèbre because it establishes an important precedent, or settles a major issue. The trial of OJ Simpson became a cause célèbre in the 1990s, for example, when it was widely publicized and commented on. The famous Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision was another famous cause célèbre in the United States because it laid the groundwork for the legalization of abortion. In this particular instance, the major court case also became a political issue.

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Political issues such as wars, national security, poverty, and health care may also become causes célèbres, especially during the election cycle. Often, a newspaper or reporter will make drawing attention to such an issue a major goal, thus turning it into a cause célèbre. The Pentagon Papers, for example, were a major cause célèbre, because they exposed realities about the Vietnam War to the public.

An individual may also become a cause célèbre, by being linked to an incident or issue. Victims of kidnapping or violent assault may attract a great deal of media attention, as do people who engage in unusual, courageous, or socially repugnant acts. Even after the incident is long past, the cause célèbre may continue to be well known and identified with the event, as was the case with Lizzie Borden. Individuals can struggle with their media fame, especially when they are attracting attention because they have done something which many people consider to be socially unacceptable.

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