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Gertz v. Welch

Melissa A. Hale

ProfessorMelissa A. Hale

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Gertz v. Welch

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Brief Fact Summary. A magazine attacked the reputation of an attorney by publishing false accusations and attacks of his character.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Private individuals involved in matters of public concern may recover for actual damages if they prove that defamatory statements were actually false and negligently made by the speaker.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Despite this substantial abridgment of the state law right to compensation for wrongful hurt to one's reputation, the Court has concluded that the protection of the New York Times privilege should be available to publishers and broadcasters of defamatory falsehood concerning public officials and public figures.

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Facts. Welch (Respondent) is a magazine publisher who warned his readers that a national police was being developed that supported Communism. Respondent ran an article, which accused Gertz (Petitioner) of being the “architect of a frame-up, a “Leninist”, and a “Communist-fronter” for bringing suit against a local police officer who killed a child. In the article, Respondent implied that Petitioner had a criminal record, but he made no effort to verify any of the statements published.

Issue. Does freedom of the press provide privilege against liability for defamation of individuals who are not public officials or public figures?

Held. No. However, each state may define the appropriate standard of liability for defamation to a private individual.

Justice Brennan: The proper test for determining defamation against individuals is the same as articulated in New York Times.
Justice White: Libel should remain an unprotected class of speech.

Discussion. People are not at the mercy of the press unless they are a public figure or official who can fight back. The state has a legitimate interest in protecting individuals from defamatory statements made by members of the press.

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