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Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc

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Brief Fact Summary.

Gertz was an attorney hired by a family to sue a police officer who had killed the family’s son. Several accusations were leveled against him in a magazine, due to his representation of the family in this suit. Gertz sued the magazine for libel.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The First Amendment does not protect defamers who libel private individuals. However, States may constitutionally allow private individuals to recover damages for defamation on the basis of any standard of care except liability without fault.

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

In either event, they invite attention and comment.

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Facts.

Gertz was an attorney hired by a family to sue a police officer who had killed the family’s son. Subsequently, in a magazine called American Opinion, the John Birch Society accused Gertz of having a criminal record and being a “Communist-fronter” because he chose to represent clients who were suing a law enforcement officer. These and many of the other accusations were factually incorrect. Gertz brought a libel suit against the magazine.

Issue.

Does the “actual malice” standard articulated in New York Times v. Sullivan extend to private individuals?

Held.

No, the “actual malice” standard does not extend to private individuals.

Dissent.

Justice Brennan

The distinction of an individual as either a private or public figure is immaterial to the underlying First Amendment values that the Constitution sought to uphold when it came to public criticism and debate. First Amendment principles of free speech and freedom of press should make it difficult to sue individuals for defamation if they engage in debate over matters of public importance.

Justice White

The Court’s decision federalized major aspects of libel law by declaring unconstitutional the prevailing defamation law in all or most of the 50 states. These radical changes in the law and severe invasions of the states’ prerogatives are not necessitated by the First Amendment or by our present circumstances.

Discussion.

The application of the “actual malice” standard as outlined in New York Times v. Sullivan to the facts of this case was inappropriate because Gertz was neither a public official nor a public figure. Ordinary citizens should be allowed more protection from libelous statements than public individuals who are in the public eye. Public officials have a variety of tools and resources available to combat falsehoods directed at them; however, private individuals are not similarly advantaged. Moreover, unlike public officials who can expect criticism, private individuals do not face this expectation


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