Brief Fact Summary.
Defendant published a series of articles linking plaintiff’s principal stockholder to organized crime and stating that he used his connections to influence the state’s governmental processes. Plaintiffs brought a defamation suit against defendant.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
In a defamation suit where the speech is of public concern, a private-figure plaintiff must provide a showing of falsity and fault before recovering damages.
The need to avoid self-censorship by the news media is, however, not the only societal value at issue.View Full Point of Law
Maurice S. Hepps (co-plaintiff) was the principal stockholder of General Programming, Inc. (“GPI”) (co-plaintiff). GPI franchised a serious of “Thrifty Stores” that sold snacks and soft drinks. The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper published a series of articles linking Hepps to organized crime and alleging that he used his connections to influence governmental processes. Hepps and GPI sued the newspaper’s publisher, Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. (defendant) for defamation. At trial, the court followed statutory law requiring: (1) the plaintiff has to prove negligence or malice, (2) that the defendant has to meet the burden of proving the truth of the statement, and (3) under the state’s “shield law” a person should not be required to disclose the source of the information obtained.
Whether a private-figure plaintiff must provide a showing of falsity and fault before recovering damages in a defamation suit over a matter of public concern?
Yes, when the publication involves speech of public concern, a private-figure plaintiff cannot recover damages without a showing that the publication was false. The judgment of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
A private-party plaintiff should not have to bear the burden of showing falsity in order to recover damages. This burden will be too high for a plaintiff to surmount.
The key inquiry here is whether the plaintiff is a public or private figure, and whether the speech is of public concern. When the speech is of public concern and the plaintiff is a public figure, then the plaintiff has to overcome a much higher bar before recovering damages. When the speech is of public concern, but the plaintiff is a private figure, the constitutional requirements are “less forbidding.” Here, the plaintiff is a private figure and the articles are of public concern. A plaintiff must bear the burden of showing falsity, as well as fault, before he or she can recover. Here, Hepps cannot recover damages for defamation without showing the falsity of the statements, The judgment of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is reversed and the case is remanded.