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Masson v. New Yorker Magazine

Citation. 501 U.S. 496, 111 S. Ct. 2419, 115 L. Ed. 2d 447, 1991 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Respondent, New Yorker Magazine (Respondent), published an article that purported to quote the Petitioner, Jeffrey Mason (Petitioner). The evidence suggested that the purported quotes were in fact interpretive summaries of the Respondent’s and other subjects’ statements. The Respondent brought suit for defamation.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A deliberate alteration of words does not equate with knowledge of falsity, unless the alteration results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement.


The Petitioner worked as Projects Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives. After giving a speech acknowledging his disillusionment with Freudian psychology, the Petitioner was fired. The Petitioner then granted Janet Malcolm, a contributor to the Respondent magazine, a series of interviews. Based on these interviews, Malcolm wrote an article about the Petitioner and his work at the archives. In the article Malcolm used quotation marks to enclose long passages that reported general statements of the Petitioner, his boss and other subjects. Both parties agreed that the Petitioner was a public figure and the Respondent was granted summary judgment by the District Court. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Was the District Court correct in its determination that the deliberate alteration of the Petitioner’s words did not result in a material change in meaning, thus knowledge of falsity was not proven under the actual malice standard?


No. Judgment reversed and remanded.
* Each statement that makes up the Petitioner’s claim purports to be a statement made by the Petitioner during interviews, yet no identical statement appears on Malcolm’s interview tapes. In response Malcolm claims she took hand notes during some interviews that were not tape recorded. The Petitioner denies this claim.
* In public figure cases, actual malice must be proven by clear and convincing evidence. Quotation marks indicate that the passage is an exact reproduction of the speaker’s words. A fabricated quotation is not only capable of injuring reputation by attributing an untrue factual assertion, but also may be injurious because of the manner of expression or even the fact that the statement was made, regardless of truth or falsity. In the work at issue, there was no suggestion in the article that the quotation marks were used rhetorically or to paraphrase.
* The Petitioner argues that, with the exception of grammar or syntax correction, publication of a quotation with knowledge that it is an alteration of the public figure’s words demonstrates actual malice. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) finds that when a speaker’s words are altered, but there is no material change in meaning, including meaning conveyed by the manner or fact of expression, the speaker suffers no compensable injury.
* The Court of Appeals applied a substantial truth test to the quotations, which complies with much of the Supreme Court’s discussion. However, the Court of Appeals also concluded that an altered quotation is protected so long as it is a rational interpretation of an actual statement. A rational interpretation standard would inappropriately allow journalists to place statements in their subjects’ mouths without fear of liability. This would cause not only public figures, but also the press to suffer, because newsworthy individuals would become wary of journalists. The Supreme Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find a material difference between several of the published passages and petitioner’s statements.


Justices Byron White (J. White) and Antonin Scalia (J. Scalia) concurred in part and dissented in part. The material change in meaning standard ignores the fact that reporting a known falsehood is sufficient to prove actual malice.


The use of quotation marks implies that an author is directly conveying his subject’s statement rather than engaging in interpretation. Therefore, slight changes in syntax may in fact result in a material change in meaning.

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