Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.
418 U.S. 323 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

No. 72-617

Argued November 14, 1973

Decided June 25, 1974

418 U.S. 323

Syllabus

A Chicago policeman named Nuccio was convicted of murder. The victim's family retained petitioner, a reputable attorney, to represent them in civil litigation against Nuccio. An article appearing in respondent's magazine alleged that Nuccio's murder trial was part of a Communist conspiracy to discredit the local police, and it falsely stated that petitioner had arranged Nuccio's "frameup," implied that petitioner had a criminal record, and labeled him a "Communist-fronter." Petitioner brought this diversity libel action against respondent. After the jury returned a verdict for petitioner, the District Court decided that the standard enunciated in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,376 U. S. 254, which bars media liability for defamation of a public official absent proof that the defamatory statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth, should apply to this suit. The court concluded that that standard protects media discussion of a public issue without regard to whether the person defamed is a public official as in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra, or a public figure, as in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts,388 U. S. 130. The court found that petitioner had failed to prove knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, and therefore entered judgment n.o.v. for respondent. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. A publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is neither a public official nor a public figure may not claim the New York Times protection against liability for defamation on the ground that the defamatory statements concern an issue of public or general interest. Pp. 418 U. S. 339-348.

(a) Because private individuals characteristically have less effective opportunities for rebuttal than do public officials and public figures, they are more vulnerable to injury from defamation. Because they have not voluntarily exposed themselves to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehoods, they are also more deserving of recovery. The state interest in compensating

Page 418 U. S. 324

injury to the reputation of private individuals is therefore greater than for public officials and public figures. Pp. 418 U. S. 343-345.

(b) To extend the New York Times standard to media defamation of private persons whenever an issue of general or public interest is involved would abridge to an unacceptable degree the legitimate state interest in compensating private individuals for injury to reputation and would occasion the additional difficulty of forcing courts to decide on an ad hoc basis which publications and broadcasts address issues of general or public interest and which do not. Pp. 418 U. S. 345-346.

(c) So long as they do not impose liability without fault, the States may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood which injures a private individual and whose substance makes substantial danger to reputation apparent. Pp. 418 U. S. 347-348.

2. The States, however, may not permit recovery of presumed or punitive damages when liability is not based on knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, and the private defamation plaintiff who establishes liability under a less demanding standard than the New York Times test may recover compensation only for actual injury. Pp. 418 U. S. 348-350.

3. Petitioner was neither a public official nor a public figure. Pp. 418 U. S. 351-352.

(a) Neither petitioner's past service on certain city committees nor his appearance as an attorney at the coroner's inquest into the death of the murder victim made him a public official. P. 418 U. S. 351.

(b) Petitioner was also not a public figure. Absent clear evidence of general fame or notoriety in the community and pervasive involvement in ordering the affairs of society, an individual should not be deemed a public figure for all aspects of his life. Rather, the public figure question should be determined by reference to the individual's participation in the particular controversy giving rise to the defamation. Petitioner's role in the Nuccio affair did not make him a public figure. Pp. 418 U. S. 351-352.

471 F.2d 801, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 418 U. S. 353. BURGER, C.J., post, p. 418 U. S. 354, DOUGLAS, J., post, p. 418 U. S. 355, BRENNAN, J., post, p. 418 U. S. 361, and WHITE, J., post, p. 418 U. S. 369, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 418 U. S. 325

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