Defendant’s magazine published an article with defamatory statements about plaintiff.
The actual-malice standard is inapplicable to private individuals.
Attorney Elmer Gertz (plaintiff-petitioner) was retained by the Nelson family in a civil suit against the police officer Richard Nuccio, who shot and killed a member of the Nelson family. American Opinion, a monthly magazine, published an article about Nuccio. Despite Gertz’s remote connection to Nuccio’s criminal suit, the article included numerous defamatory statements about Gertz. The article alleged that Gertz was the architect of a “frame-up” of Nuccio, labelled Gertz as a “Leninist” and a “Communist-fronter,” and falsely alleged that Gertz had a criminal record. The article was on sale at newsstands through the United States. Gertz brought suit against Robert Welch, Inc. (defendant-respondent), the magazine’s publisher, for libel.
Whether a publisher of defamatory material about an individual who is neither a public official nor a public figure may claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by those statements?
No, the district court erred in applying the New York Times standard in this case. The case is reversed and remanded.
The actual-malice standard set forth in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan defines the level of constitutional protection afforded in defamation suits of a public person. States retain the power to protect private individuals for injurious defamatory falsehoods. Doing so allows states to impose liability of publishers of defamatory statements by requiring a less demanding showing than as required by the New York Times standard. Here, Gertz was clearly not a public figure. He did not take part in the criminal prosecution of Nuccio, thrust himself into the debate over a public issue, nor engage the public’s attention.