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Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, Philadelphia Newspapers (Philadelphia), published five stories that claimed the Plaintiff, Hepps (Plaintiff), was connected to organized crime. The Plaintiff sued the Defendant for defamation.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A private figure suing for defamation about a matter of public concern has the burden of showing falsity, as well as fault before damages may be recovered.

    Facts. The Defendants published five stories about the Plaintiff and the corporation of which he was principal stockholder. The stories claimed that they had links to organized crime and had used those connections to influence the State’s governmental processes, both legislative and administrative. The trial judge held that the Plaintiff bore the burden of proving falsity, as distinguished from fault. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court viewed Gertz as simply requiring the Plaintiff to show fault in actions for defamation. It concluded that a showing of fault did not require a showing of falsity.

    Issue. Does the Plaintiff, a private figure, suing for defamation about a matter of public concern have the burden of showing falsity, as well as fault before damages may be recovered?

    Held. Yes. Reversed and remanded.
    * In New York Times a public-figure plaintiff must show the falsity of the statements at issue in order to prevail on a suit for defamation. Here, as in Gertz, the Plaintiff is a private figure and the newspaper articles are of public concern. In Gertz, as in New York Times, the common-law rule was superceded by a constitutional rule. The common law’s rule on falsity – that Defendant must bear the burden of proving truth – must similarly fall here to a constitutional requirement that the Plaintiff bear the burden of showing falsity, as well as fault, before recovering damages.
    * The allocation of the burden of proof will determine liability for some speech that is true and some that is false, but all of such speech is unknowably true or false.
    * In this case, it is difficult to determine if the speech is true, or if it is false. In a case such as this, the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) imposes the burden of proof on the Plaintiff to prove that the speech was false. By shifting the burden to the Plaintiff, the Supreme Court tips the scales in favor of free speech. To ensure that true speech on matters of public concern is not deterred, the Supreme Court held that the common-law presumption that defamatory speech is false cannot stand when the Plaintiff seeks damages against a media defendant for speech of public concern.

    Dissent. Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) argues that unless a plaintiff can overcome the burden imposed by Gertz, he cannot recover regardless of how the burden of proof on the issue of truth or falsity is allocated. By definition, therefore, the lonely litigants – and the only publishers – who will benefit from today’s decision are those who act negligently or maliciously.
    Concurrence. Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun) argued that while the Supreme Court reserves the question whether the rule it announces applies to non-media defendants, he adhered to his view that such a distinction is irreconcilable with the fundamental First Amendment principle that the inherent worth of speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of the source.

    Discussion. In this case, the claims made by the Defendant that the Plaintiff was connected to organized crime were difficult to prove or disprove and thus the outcome of the case was determined based on who bore the burden of proof. The Supreme Court decided to impose the burden of proof on the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff must have shown that the claims made by the Defendant were false in order to recover for defamation. The Supreme Court imposed the burden on the Plaintiff because the United States Constitution (Constitution) requires that injurious, but unknowably true or false speech give way to free sp



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