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Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts

    Brief Fact Summary. The Plaintiffs, Butts and Walker (Plaintiffs), were public figures and not public officials. Both were awarded damages for defamation. The Defendant, Curtis Publishing Co. (Defendant), appealed to extend the constitutional safeguards outlined in New York Times to public figures.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A public figure has the same standard of proof for libel as a public official does under New York Times.

    Facts. The case in the casebook deals with two separate cases with different facts:
    * In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, Defendant No. 1, the Saturday Evening Post (Defendant No. 1) printed an article accusing Plaintiff No. 1, Butts (Plaintiff No. 1), the coach of the University of Georgia football team, of conspiring to fix a 1962 Georgia-Alabama game by giving Paul Bryant, the Alabama coach, crucial information about Georgia’s offensive strategy. Plaintiff No. 1 sued Defendant No. 1 for libel and a jury awarded him $60,000 in general damaged and $30,000 in punitive damages. After New York Times was decided, Defendant No. 1 requested a new trial. The motion for a new trial was denied because Plaintiff No. 1 was not a public official and there was ample evidence from which a jury could have concluded that the article was published with reckless disregard for truth.
    * Associated Press v. Walker arose out of the distribution of a news dispatch giving an eyewitness account of events on the campus of the University of Mississippi, when a massive riot erupted because of federal efforts to enforce a court decree ordering the enrollment of an African-American, James Meredith, as a student in the University. The dispatch stated that Plaintiff No. 2, Walker (Plaintiff No. 2), who was present on the campus, had taken command of the violent crowd and had personally led a charge against federal marshals sent there to effectuate the court’s decree and to assist in preserving order. Plaintiff No. 2, a private citizen with a honorable military career, sued for libel claiming that he had counseled restraint to the students, had exercised no control over the crowd, and had not taken part in any charge against federal marshals. Some evidence showed that Defendant No. 2, the Associated Press (Defendant No. 2), was negligent in assigning an inexperienced reporter t
    o cover the story. The court awarded Plaintiff No. 2 compensatory damages, but refused to award punitive damages because the record at most included evidence of negligence, but not malice.
    * Both Plaintiff No. 1 and Plaintiff No. 2 were public figures, but not public officials. Four separate Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) opinions, much condensed here, addressed the question of how the standards of New York Times applied.

    Issue. Do the constitutional safeguards required under New York Times v. Sullivan apply to a public figure who is not a public official?

    Held. Yes. Judgments affirmed.
    * Justice John Harlan (J. Harlan) argued that the actions cannot be analogized to prosecutions for seditious libel. Neither of the Plaintiffs has any position in government, which would permit a recovery by him to be viewed as a vindication of governmental policy. Neither of the Plaintiffs was entitled to a special privilege protecting his utterances against accountability in libel.
    * “Speech can rebut speech, propaganda will answer propaganda, [and] free debate of ideas will result in the wisest governmental policies.”
    * Both Plaintiffs commanded a substantial amount of independent public interest at the times of the publications. Both had sufficient public interest and sufficient access to the means of counterargument to be able to expose though discussion the falsehood and fallacies of the defamatory statements.
    * Libel actions of the present type cannot be left entirely to state libel laws. Both the Plaintiffs commanded a substantial amount of independent public interest at the time of the publications. The Supreme Court holds that a public figure is subject to the same standards for recovery from libel as a public official. Looking at the evidence in the cases, the Supreme Court finds that Plaintiff No. 1 has meet the standard set forth in New York Times and Plaintiff No. 2 has not.

    Dissent. Justice Hugo Black (J. Black) argued that it is time for the Supreme Court to abandon New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and adopt the rule to the effect that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) was intended to leave the press free from the harassment of libel judgments.
    Concurrence. Chief Justice Earl Warren (J. Warren) stated that the differentiation between public figures and public officials has no basis in law, logic, or the First Amendment of the Constitution. Public figures like public officials play an influential role in ordering society. Plaintiff No. 2’s should be reversed, as there was only evidence of negligence. As for Plaintiff No. 1’s case J. Warren was satisfied that the evidence discloses the reckless disregard for the truth.
    * Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan) argues that the evidence unmistakably would support a judgment for Plaintiff No. 1 under the New York Times standard.

    Discussion. Public figures have just as much influence and access to the public as do public officials. In this case, the majority would rather have the Plaintiffs, who are public figures, use newspapers, TV shows, public appearances and the like to battle defamatory statements made without malice. In the decision in this case, the Supreme Court takes a hands-off approach in dealing with defamatory statements that were made by mistake.


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