Rosenblatt v. Baer - 383 U.S. 75 (1966)

U.S. Supreme Court

Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966)

Rosenblatt v. Baer

No. 38

Argued October 20, 1965

Decided February 21, 1966

383 U.S. 75


Respondent, the former supervisor of a county recreation area who was employed by and responsible to the three county Commissioners, brought this civil libel action in a New Hampshire state court against petitioner whose newspaper column allegedly criticized the fiscal management of the area under respondent's regime and asked the questions, "What happened to all the money last year? and every other year?" Respondent offered extrinsic proofs that the column imputed mismanagement and speculation during respondent's tenure on the theories (1) that the jury could award respondent damages if it found that the column cast suspicion indiscriminately on the former small management group, whether or not it attributed the misconduct specifically to respondent, and (2) that the column was read as specifically referring to respondent as the person responsible for the area's financial affairs. The jury was instructed that "an implication of crime to one or some of a small group that casts suspicion on all is actionable," and that defamatory comment was justified if made without malice and represented fair comment on matters of public interest, "malice" being defined to include "ill will, evil motive, intention to injure . . . ," and the jury was permitted to find that negligent misstatement of fact would defeat petitioner's privilege of free expression. The jury awarded respondent damages, and the State Supreme Court affirmed, finding no bar in New York Times Co v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, which had been decided after the trial.


1. An otherwise impersonal attack on governmental operations cannot be used to establish defamation of those administering such operations absent evidence that the implication of wrongdoing was read as specifically directed at the plaintiff, whether he is considered a public official or a member of a group responsible for governmental operations, and whether or not others were also implicated. The trial judge's instruction was erroneous to the extent that it authorized the jury to award respondent damages without regard to evidence that the asserted implication of the

Page 383 U. S. 76

column was made with specific reference to him. New York Times, supra, followed. Pp. 383 U. S. 79-83.

2. A government employee, having or appearing to the public to have substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs, is a "public official," and, as such, under New York Times, supra, and Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U. S. 64, cannot recover damages for defamatory comment about his official conduct unless he proves actual malice, i.e., that such comment is made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it is true or false. Pp. 383 U. S. 84-86.

(a) Whether a person is a "public official" as that term is used in New York Times is not determined under state law standards. P. 383 U. S. 84.

(b) The term "public official" should be interpreted in the light of the compelling interest in debate on public issues and about those persons who are in a position to resolve those issues, though it is not necessary here, any more than it was in New York Times, to delineate the precise scope of the term. P. 383 U. S. 85.

(c) The protections which the law of defamation affords must be limited by the constitutional protections for public discussion. P. 383 U. S. 86.

3. Since New York Times had not been decided at the time of the trial of this case, respondent should be allowed to adduce proof that his claim falls outside the rule of that decision, or that petitioner's comment was made with malice as defined therein, and, on retrial, it will be for the trial judge in the first instance to determine if the proofs show that respondent was a "public official." Pp. 383 U. S. 87-88.

106 N.H. 26, 203 A.2d 773, reversed and remanded.

Page 383 U. S. 77

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