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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Citation. 418 U.S. 323 (1974)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The petitioner, a lawyer in Chicago, initiated a libel action against the publisher of “American Opinion,” which charged the petitioner with representing the policeman in the murder trial and called him a communist.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The First Amendment requires that courts protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters.


The petitioner had been retained by a victim’s family in a civil suit against a Chicago policeman who were convicted of murder. The magazine charged the petitioner with being an architect of the “frame-up” of the policeman in the murder trial and called him a “Communist-fronter.” The district court entered a judgment in favor of the defendant on the grounds that the petitioner had not demonstrated that the American Opinion had requisite awareness of falsity.


May a newspaper or broadcaster that publishes defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is not a public official claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by those statements?


No, States should retain substantial latitude in their efforts to enforce a legal remedy for defamatory falsehood injurious to the reputation of a private individual. To the extent that States do not impose liability without fault, they may define the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual. Because the State has a legitimate interest in protecting individuals against libel, the publisher or broadcaster may not claim constitutional privilege.


Justice Brennan

Brennan: The standard suggested by New York Times was applied libel of a public official to give effect to the First Amendment’s function to encourage ventilation of public issues, not because the public official has any less interest in protecting his reputation than a private individual. In most libel cases, the ability to respond through the media will depend on complex factors on which the ability of a private individual depends. Thus, the highly improbable generalization by the majority of public figures seems insubstantial.

White: The majority did not find that those who wrote the First Amendment intended to prohibit the Government from providing the private citizen a peaceful remedy for damaging falsehood. The central meaning of the First Amendment is that seditious libel – criticism of government and public officials – falls beyond the police power of the State. It is difficult to understand why an ordinary citizen should carry the risk of damage and suffer the injury to vindicate First Amendment values by protecting the press from liability for circulating false information.


Private individuals are more vulnerable to injury than public officials that usually enjoy significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication and thus have a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements. Also, an individual who decides to seek governmental office must accept certain necessary consequences of that involvement in public affairs and runs the risk of closer public scrutiny. And society’s interest in public officials is not strictly limited to formal discharge of official duties. Yet, States may not provide remedies to injured individuals more than is necessary to protect the legitimate interest involved and to cover the actual injury.

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