Brief Fact Summary. Defendants published an article and reenacted a play about Plaintiff and his family being held hostage. The article and play were false, but were portrayed by Defendant to be the truth. Plaintiff sued Defendant for false light.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Defendants published an article and reenacted a play about Plaintiff and his family being held hostage. The article and play were false, but were portrayed by Defendant to be the truth. Plaintiff sued Defendant for false light.
Hill (Plaintiff), his wife, and five children were held hostage in their suburban Philadelphia home by three escaped convicts. Plaintiff and his family were released without any harm but the story made the front pages of the newspapers. Plaintiffs then moved to Connecticut. Time, Inc. (Defendant) published an article that told of a new Broadway thriller, The Desperate Hours. The article said Plaintiff and his family rose in heroism in the time of crisis. The article included pictures of scenes from the play that was to be reenacted in Plaintiff’s Philadelphia home. Plaintiff sued under Sections 50-51 of the New York Civil Rights Law; Defendant’s publication of the issues gave the impression that the play was true when in fact it did not accurately recount Plaintiff’s actual experience and Defendant knew the article was false and untrue. Defendant answered that the article was a subject of a legitimate news article. The trial judge denied Defendant’s motion to dismiss and the j
ury awarded Plaintiff $50,000 in actual damages and $25,000 in punitive damages. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Issue. Does a publication of a false report on a matter of public interest need only meet the New York Times test of actual malice to permit recovery in a lawsuit for false light?
Held. Yes. Reversed and remanded.
* Exposure of the self to others in varying degrees is a concomitant of life in a civilized community. The risk of their exposure is an essential incident of life in a society, which places a primary value on freedom of speech and of press. A broadly defined freedom of the press assures the maintenance of our political system. Fear of litigation will inevitably create the danger that the legitimate utterance will be penalized. However, constitutional guarantees cannot tolerate sanctions against calculated falsehood without significant impairment of their essential function.
* The evidence in this case reasonably would support a jury finding of either innocent or merely negligent misstatement by Defendant, or a finding that Defendant portrayed the play as a re-enactment of the Hill family’s experience reckless of the truth or with actual knowledge that the portrayal was false.
Dissent. Points of Law - for Law School Success
The line between the informing and the entertaining is too elusive for the protection of that basic right. View Full Point of Law
(J. Fortas) Altering or changing the true facts so the article as published was a fictionalized account is a knowing or reckless falsity per se. Alteration denotes a positive act and not a negligent or inadvertent happening.
Concurrence. There are two concurring opinions. Justice Harlan concurs in part and dissents in part.
* (J. Douglas) It seems to me to be irrelevant to talk about any right of privacy in the context of this highly public event. Plaintiff was catapulted into the public domain by events over which he had no control. His activities are now a matter of public domain.
* (J. Harlan) Constitutional standards would be met by a finding of negligence by Defendant. Plaintiff is neither a public figure nor a public official. It would be unreasonable to assume that Plaintiff could find a forum for making a successful refutation of Defendant’s material. Plaintiff came to the public attention through an unfortunate circumstance and without any voluntary acts on his part. He has not waived his privacy nor any protections afforded by the State from irresponsible publicity. Discussion.
Sanctions against either innocent or negligent misrepresentation would present a grave hazard of discouraging the press from exercising constitutional guarantees. However, constitutional guarantees can tolerate sanctions against calculated falsehood without significant impairment of their essential function. The trial judge did not instruct the jury properly in that a finding of liability could only be based on a finding of knowing and reckless falsity in the publication of the article.