ProfessorMelissa A. Hale
CaseCast™ – "What you need to know"
Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Robert Welsh, Inc. (Defendant), published an article that charged that the Plaintiff, Gertz (Plaintiff), an attorney, framed a police officer and was a communist. The Defendant sued the Plaintiff for libel.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The New York Times rationale does not extend to private individuals.
Issue. May a newspaper or broadcaster publish defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is neither a public official nor a public figure and claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by those statements?
Held. No. Judgment reversed.
* The First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) requires that we protect some falsehoods in order to protect speech that matters. The need to avoid self-censorship by the news media is, however, not the only societal value at issue. If it were, the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) would have embraced long ago the view that publishers and broadcasters enjoy an unconditional and indefeasible immunity from liability for defamation. Some tension necessarily exists between the need for a vigorous and uninhibited press and the legitimate interest in redressing wrongful injury. In Supreme Court’s continuing effort to define the proper accommodation between these competing concerns, the Supreme Court have been especially anxious to assure to the freedoms of speech and press that “breathing space” essential to their fruitful exercise.
* The New York Times standard defines the level of constitutional protection appropriate to the context of defamation of a public person. Those who, 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. Despite the substantial abridgment of the state law right to compensation for wrongful hurt to one’s reputation, the Supreme Court has concluded that the protection of the New York Times privilege should be available to publishers and broadcasters of defamatory falsehood concerning public officials and public figures.
* In the tort of defamation, public figures are different than private individuals. There is a need for the balancing of interests: the need to avoid self-censorship by the media and the interest in allowing compensation for harm resulting from defamation. A public figure or official has greater access to the media to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy. A private individual is more vulnerable to injury and needs greater protection. Therefore, the New York Times rationale does not extend to private individuals.
Dissent. Justice Byron White (J. White) argued that the law of defamation and the right of the ordinary citizen to recover for false publication injurious to his reputation have been almost exclusively the business of state courts and legislatures. J. White further argued that the Supreme Court has federalized major aspects of libel law by declaring unconstitutional in important respects the prevailing defamation law in all or most of the 50 States. Punitive damages may not be recovered by showing malice in the traditional sense of ill will; knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth will now be required. In these circumstances, the law has heretofore put the risk of falsehood on the publisher where the victim is a private citizen and no grounds of special privilege are invoked. The Supreme Court would now shift this risk to the victim, even though he has done nothing to invite the calumny, is wholly innocent of fault and is helpless to avoid his injury. The press today is
vigorous and robust. To J. White it is quite incredible to suggest that threats of libel suits from private citizens are causing the press to refrain from publishing the truth.
Concurrence. Justice Harry Blackman (J. Blackmun) argues that the Supreme Court today refuses to apply New York Times to the private individual, as contrasted with the public official and the public figure. It thereby fixes the outer boundary of the New York Times doctrine, and says that, beyond that boundary, a State is free to define for itself the appropriate standard of media liability so long as it does not impose liability without fault.
Discussion. In this case, the Supreme Court limits the application of the New York Times standard to public officials and figures only. A private individual need not show that a defendant acted with actual malice.