Citation. 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974).
Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiff filed a libel suit and won. Defendant appealed, arguing the actual malice standard set forth in New York Times v. Sullivan did not apply.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
States may define the appropriate standards of liability in libel actions by private individuals. Presumed and punitive damages, however, may not be recovered without establishing knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.
A Chicago policeman killed a child named Nelson. The Nelson family hired Plaintiff to represent them in a civil action against the policeman. Defendant published an article accusing Plaintiff of being a part a Communist conspiracy to frame the policeman. Plaintiff filed a libel suit.
Whether a newspaper may publish defamatory falsehoods about a private individual and claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by the statements.
No. A newspaper may not publish defamatory falsehoods about a private individual and claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by the statements.
It is a struggle– a quite hopeless one. No accommodation of First Amendment freedoms can be proper, except those made for the Framers of the Constitution.
The actual malice requirement is applied only to public figures, but the line dividing public versus private figures is a legal fiction.
This is an ill-considered exercise of power by the Court. The Court has not had the benefit of the briefs and arguments in this case. The case is being decided on wholly insufficient grounds.
Under the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea. However, there is no constitutional value in false statement of facts. Notwithstanding this, some falsehoods must be protected in order to avoid self-censorship by the media. There is also a legitimate state interest underlying the law of libel of compensating individuals for harm suffered. Taken all together, states should retain substantial latitude in their efforts to enforce a legal remedy for libel of private individuals. So long as they do not impose liability without fault, the states may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability.
Additionally, Plaintiff here is not a public figure. He played a minimal role relating solely to his representation of a private client. He did not thrust himself into the vortex of this public issue. Judgement reversed and remanded for further proceedings.