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Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton

Citation. 491 U.S. 657, 109 S.Ct. 2678, 105 L.Ed.2d 562
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Brief Fact Summary.

Defendant’s newspaper published a defamatory story on plaintiff, who brought suit for libel.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

In a defamation suit, a defendant’s purposeful avoidance of the truth is sufficient to support a finding of actual malice.


Daniel Connaughton (plaintiff) ran for Municipal Judge against the incumbent, James Dolan. A month before the election, Dolan’s Director of Court Services was arrested on bribery charges. A grand jury investigation ensued. The Journal News ran a story featuring allegations by a grand jury witness. In the story, the witness stated that Connaughton had bribed her. Connaughton brought a defamation suit against Harte-Hanks Communications (defendant).


Whether defendant exhibited actual malice in publishing an allegedly defamatory story on plaintiff?


Yes, purposeful avoidance of the truth supports a finding of actual malice. The judgment of the appellate court is affirmed.


At the minimum, actual malice requires that the statements were made with reckless disregard with the truth. Reckless disregard requires a finding that the defendant made the false publication with either a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity, or had serious doubts as to the truth of the statement’s publication. While public figures may expect “rough and personal” attacks when they enter the political arena, the press is not immune from defamation suits. Insufficient investigation will not support a showing of actual malice. Purposeful avoidance of the truth, however, will support that showing. Here, the grand jury witness’s statements had been denied by at least five witnesses. Moreover, her statements about Connaughton were highly improbable and inconsistent.

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