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1) The body politic, or the people of a state, nation, or municipality. The word derives from the Latin publicus, meaning “pertaining to the people, state, or community.”

2) Under the authority of the government or belonging and available to the people; not private. It may refer to an entity, agency, or activity. This distinction comes up in the context of public and private schools, public and private utilities, public and private hospitals, public and private lands, and public and private roads. For example, in California v. San Luis Obispo Sportsman’s Association, the California Supreme Court interpreted “public lands” in the state constitution section relating to public fishing to mean “state-owned land the use of which by the state is also compatible with use by the public,” and that “only property which is being used for a special purpose that is incompatible with its use by the public for example, lands used for prisons or mental institutions does not fall within the scope of this constitutional provision.”

[Last updated in November of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]