The defendant’s magazine published an article about the plaintiff, an attorney, containing falsehoods and claiming he was a Communist and part of Marxist groups.
States can define for themselves the appropriate standards of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehoods injurious to a private individual without free speech concerns. That being said, presumed or punitive damages may not be recovered without a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth
In 1968, a Chicago policeman shot and killed a youth named Nelson. The policeman was prosecuted and convicted for second degree murder. The Nelson family retained the plaintiff to represent them in civil litigation against the policeman. The defendant published an article in his magazine accusing the plaintiff of being part of a Communist conspiracy against the police and claiming he was a part of two Marxist organizations. It is not disputed that the article contained false statements.
Is the defendant protected from defamation liability?
No. The plaintiff is a private individual, and the remarks made about him were blatantly false. The lower court judgement is reversed and the case remanded.
The Court begins by identifying that false statements of fact, as opposed to opinion, are not worthy of constitutional protections. That being said, the First Amendment requires that some falsehoods be protected in order to protect speech that matters and avoid self-censorship. Often there are other remedies available to plaintiffs in cases like these, especially when the plaintiff is a public figure who can correct the falsehood publicly and mitigate the adverse impact on reputation. For these reasons, private individuals are generally afforded more protections in cases of defamation, and states should retain the ability to enforce a legal remedy for defamation against a private individual. That being said, presumed or punitive damages may not be recovered without a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The plaintiff here is not a public figure, despite the defendant’s contention. The jury had no knowledge of who he was, and he had not injected himself into the public realm of notoriety.