Brief Fact Summary.
Robert Welch’s outlet alleged that Gertz orchestrated a frame-up against the police officer and falsely asserted that Gertz had a long police record, was an official of the Marxist League for Industrial Democracy, and was a Communist. The editor said he had no reason to doubt the charges and made no effort to verify them.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
So long as liability is not imposed without fault, a State may define its own appropriate standard for liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual.
Nor does the Constitution require us to draw so thin a line between the drastic alternatives of the New York Times privilege and the common law of strict liability for defamatory error.View Full Point of Law
Robert Welch published a monthly outlet that hoped to alert the public to an alleged nationwide conspiracy to discredit local police. In one article, the outlet alleged that Gertz orchestrated a frame-up against the police officer and falsely asserted that Gertz had a long police record, was an official of the Marxist League for Industrial Democracy, and was a Communist. The editor said he had no reason to doubt the charges and made no effort to verify them.
Gertz sued for libel in district court.
Is the Times standard applicable when a publisher makes defamatory statements about a private plaintiff?
Reversed and remanded.
No, the Times standard is not applicable when a publisher makes defamatory statements about a private plaintiff.
It would have been better to let the law on defamation develop naturally instead of creating a whole new doctrine. Here, the right to counsel would be jeopardized if every attorney who took on an unpopular case would automatically become fair game for irresponsible reporters.
The standard leaves States free to define their own appropriate standard of liability for publishers in these sorts of cases, eroding First Amendment protection.
A jury’s latitude to impose liability for want of due care poses a greater threat of suppressing unpopular views than does a possible recovery of presumed or punitive damages. The Court’s broad-ranging examples of “actual injury” allow a jury bent on punishing expression of unpopular views a formidable weapon to do so.
It is hard to believe that threats of libel suits from private citizens are causing the press to refrain from publishing the truth, especially when the communications industry is concentrated in the hands of a powerful few.
The law now puts the risk of falsehood on the victim, though she is helpless to avoid the injury. Why should the ordinary citizen carry the risk of damage and suffer the injury to vindicate First Amendment values of protecting the press when those members of the press are far better at bearing the burden?
By removing presumed and punitive damages in the absence of actual malice as required by the Times standard, the Court leaves adequate breathing space for a vigorous press.
There is no constitutional value in false statements of fact, but such statements are inevitable in public debate. Punishment of error runs the risk of chilling freedom of speech. However, states also have a legitimate interest in compensating individuals for harm inflicted upon them by defamatory statements.
The Times standard defines the level of constitutional protection appropriate for a case regarding defamation of a public person, requiring clear and convincing proof of actual malice in making the defamatory statement.
Unlike public officials, who have a broad platform to disavow defamatory statements, private individuals are more vulnerable to injury and so the state’s interest in protecting them is greater. Additionally, a person who seeks public office must accept the necessary consequence that being in the public eye will expose the person to greater public scrutiny, while private individuals do not consent to such heightened exposure.
While a State should have autonomy to decide its own standard of liability for defamatory statements that injure private plaintiffs, states do not have a substantial interest, as weighed against First Amendment freedom of expression, in permitting recovery of presumed or punitive damages when liability is not based on a showing of actual malice. Instead, a private plaintiff who establishes liability under a lesser standard then that of the Times standard may recover damages only sufficient to compensate her for actual injury.
While an individual may achieve notoriety, it is more common that an individual voluntarily injects herself into a public controversy. Here, Gertz has long been active in community and professional affairs, but he achieved no general fame or notoriety within the community. Absent clear evidence of general fame or notoriety and pervasive involvement in the affairs of society, an individual should not be deemed a public personality for all aspects of her life.