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Gertz v. Robert Welsh, Inc.

Melissa A. Hale

ProfessorMelissa A. Hale

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

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Gertz v. Robert Welsh, Inc.
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    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.

    Facts. The Plaintiff, a reputable attorney, was retained by the Nelson family to bring a civil suit against Richard Nuccio (Nuccio), a policeman who had previously been convicted of second-degree murder for the death of young Nelson. The Defendant published an article entitled “Frame-Up: Richard Nuccio and the War On Police” that purported to show that Nuccio was innocent, that his prosecution was a communist frame-up and that the Plaintiff was an architect of the frame-up. The article also falsely charged that the Plaintiff was a communist and had engaged in communist activities. The editor of the article did not do an independent investigation, but had relied on its author’s extensive research. The Plaintiff filed a libel action and won a jury verdict for $50,000. The court refused to enter judgment on the verdict on the ground that the New York Times standard protects discussion of any public issue without regard to the stature of the person defamed. The decision was affirmed on a
    ppeal because the Plaintiff failed to show that the Defendant acted with actual malice as defined by New York Times. The Plaintiff appealed.

    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.


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