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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner sued a newspaper company for publishing defamatory falsehoods about him.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

States should retain substantial latitude in their efforts to enforce a legal remedy for defamatory falsehood injurious to the reputation of a private individual.

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

The instant case presents the question whether the New York Times' knowing-or-reckless-falsity standard applies in a state civil libel action brought not by a public official or a public figure but by a private individual for a defamatory falsehood uttered in a news broadcast by a radio station about the individual's involvement in an event of public or general interest.

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Facts.

A family hired Elmer Gertz, a Chicago lawyer, in a civil action to sue Nuccio, a police officer, for killing one of its members. The state ultimately obtained Nuccio’s conviction for murder in the second degree. An article in The American Opinion, published by John Birch Society, claimed that the prosecution of Nuccio was part of the Communist campaign against the police and that Gertz was a “Leninist.”

Issue.

May a newspaper that publish defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is neither a public official claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by those statements?

Held.

Yes, States should retain substantial latitude in their efforts to enforce a legal remedy for defamatory falsehood injurious to the reputation of a private individual. So long as they do not impose liability without fault, the States may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual.

Discussion.

More important than the likelihood that private individuals will lack effective opportunities for rebuttal, there is a compelling normative consideration underlying the distinction between private and public defamation plaintiffs. An individual who decides to seek governmental office must accept certain necessary consequences of that involvement in public affairs. He runs the risk of closer public scrutiny than might otherwise be the case. Those classed as public figures have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies to influence the resolution of the issues involved. In either event, they invite attention and comment. It is plain that petitioner was not a public figure. He played a minimal role at the coroner’s inquest, and his participation related solely to his representation of a private client. He took no part in the criminal prosecution of Officer Nuccio.


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