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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Melissa A. Hale

ProfessorMelissa A. Hale

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.
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    Brief Fact Summary. Petitioner Elmer Gertz is an attorney representing the family of a youth who was shot and killed by a police officer in Chicago in 1968. While representing this family in a civil trial, Respondent, Robert Welch, Inc. publisher of American Opinion magazine, published an article-accusing Petitioner of being a Leninist and part of a Communist conspiracy. These statements against Petitioner were found to be falsely based, and caused Petitioner to sue Respondent for libel. During trial Respondent seeks protection under the New York Times standard.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendment states are allowed to develop their own lesser level of fault, as long as it is a no fault standard, for libel against private figures because of the vulnerability private figures have to serious injury when compared with public figures. Damages for libel found against a private figure is limited to that amount that will compensate him for actual injury.

    Facts. In 1968, a policeman in Chicago shot and killed a youth, for which he was later indicted and convicted for murder in the second degree. Following the criminal trial, the family of the youth obtained Petitioner to represent them in civil litigation against the officer. In a periodical called the American Opinion, Respondent as managing editor commissioned an article on the trial of the officer. In one issue he made statements linking Petitioner and the trial against the officer to the Communist Party. Statements made included referring to Petitioner as a Leninist and stating that he belonged to Communist groups. The statements made in American Opinion contained many serious inaccuracies concerning Petitioner and there was no basis for many of the accusations made towards Petitioner in the magazine. Respondent made no effort to verify or substantiate the charges against Petitioner, but instead wrote an editorial introduction stating that the author of the article performed exten
    sive research into the case, and wrote libelous captions under a picture of Petitioner he included in the article. Petitioner filed an action for libel in United States District Court, which concluded that the New York Times standard should govern this case even though Petitioner is not a public figure. Petitioner appealed the use of this standard to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the decision, causing the case to come before the Supreme Court.

    Issue.
    Is the New York Times standard, used in cases of libel involving public figures, the correct standard to use in cases involving private figures?
    What is the standard by which damages can be recovered in a libel case involving a public figure?

    Held.
    The New York Times standard is inapplicable to this case and that the trial court erred in entering judgment for Respondent. Because the jury was allowed to impose liability without fault and was permitted to presume damages without proof of injury, a new trial is necessary.
    The New York Times standard defines the level of constitutional protection appropriate to the context of defamation of a public person. A public person is one by reason of the notoriety of their achievements or the vigor and success with which they seek the public’s attention, are properly classed as public figures and those who hold governmental office may recover for injury to reputation only on clear and convincing proof that the defamatory falsehood was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Public figures also have significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication and hence a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy.
    Therefore, private individuals are more vulnerable to injury and there is a greater state interest in protecting them. Therefore states retain substantial latitude in their efforts to enforce a legal remedy for defamatory falsehood injurious to the reputation of a private individual. The only restriction on the states is that they cannot impose liability without fault, but other than this the state can define for themselves what is an appropriate standard of liability by which a publisher or broadcaster can be held for false injurious statements. Under the public figure test, it is obvious that Petitioner is not a public figure as he never discussed the case with the press nor did he attempt to gain the public’s attention for this case.
    The private defamation plaintiff who establishes liability under a less demanding standard than that stated by New York Times may recover only such damages as are sufficient to compensate him for actual injury.

    Dissent.
    Suggests that the struggle of defining the proper accommodation between the law of defamation and the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment is a hopeless one for in the light of the command of the First Amendment no accommodation or its freedoms can be proper except those made by the Framers themselves.
    Wants the reckless standard in civil libel actions concerning media reports of the involvement of private individuals in events of public or general interest.
    States that the decision of the Court is an ill-considered exercise of the power entrusted to the Court, particularly when the court did not have the benefit of briefs and argument to mist of the major issues in this decision.

    Discussion. This case involves three important principles concerning libel of private figures. First, it carves out what distinguishes a private figure from a public figure, and is an analysis that must be undertaken concerning each case to determine if the New York Times standard applies, or the Gertz standard. Second, this case holds that a publication is held to a higher standard when it comes to comments it makes regarding private figures. Finally, this case limits the amount of damages a private figure can obtain in a libel case to compensate them for how they are actually injured.


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