Time, Inc. v. Hill
385 U.S. 374 (1967)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374 (1967)

Time, Inc. v. Hill

No. 22

Argued April 27, 1966

Reargued October 18-19, 1966

Decided January 9, 1967

385 U.S. 374

Syllabus

Appellee, Hill, and his family, in 1952, were held hostage in their home by some escaped convicts, and were ultimately released unharmed without any violence having occurred. They later moved away, and appellee discouraged further publicity efforts about the incident, which had caused extensive involuntary notoriety. A novel about a hostage incident, but depicting considerable violence, later appeared, and was subsequently made into a play, these portrayals having been shaped by several incidents. Appellant's magazine, Life, published an account of the play, relating it to the Hill incident, describing the play as a reenactment, and using as illustrations photographs of scenes staged in the former Hill home. Alleging that the Life article gave the knowingly false impression that the play depicted the Hill incident, appellee sued for damages under a New York statute providing a cause of action to a person whose name or picture is used by another without consent for purposes of trade or advertising. Appellant maintained that the article concerned a subject of general interest, and was published in good faith. The trial court instructed the jury that liability under the statute depended upon a finding that the Life article was published not to disseminate news, but as a fictionalized version of the Hill incident and for the purpose of advertising the play or increasing the magazine's circulation. The court also instructed the jury that punitive damages were justified if the jury found that the appellant falsely connected Hill with the play knowingly or through failure to make a reasonable investigation, and that personal malice need not be found if there was reckless or wanton disregard of Hill's rights. The jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages. Though liability was sustained on appeal, the Appellate Division ordered a new trial as to damages, at which only compensatory damages were awarded, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The New York courts have limited the reach of the statute as applied to reports of newsworthy persons or events, and have made it clear since reargument here that truth is a complete defense. (Spahn v. Julian Messner, Inc., 18

Page 385 U. S. 375

N.Y.2d 324, 221 N.E.2d 543 (1966)). However, the New York courts allow recovery under the statute when such reports are "fictitious."

Held:

1. Constitutional protections for free expression preclude applying New York's statute to redress false reports of newsworthy matters absent proof that the publisher knew of their falsity or acted in reckless disregard of the truth. Cf. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254. Pp. 385 U. S. 380-391.

(a) Erroneous statements about a matter of public interest, like the opening of a new play linked to an actual incident, which was the subject of the Life article, are inevitable, and, if innocent or merely negligent, must be protected if "freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space' that they 'need to survive. . . .'" Id. at 376 U. S. 271-272. Pp. 385 U. S. 388-389.

(b) But constitutional guarantees of free expression can tolerate sanctions against calculated falsehood without impairment of their essential function. P. 385 U. S. 389.

2. Since the evidence in this case would support a jury finding either (1) that appellant's inaccurate portrayal of the Hill incident was innocent or merely negligent or (2) that it was recklessly untrue or knowingly false, the trial court's failure properly to instruct the jury that a verdict of liability could be predicated only on a finding of knowing or reckless falsity in the publication of the Life article constituted reversible error. Pp. 385 U. S. 391-397.

3. A declaration would be unwarranted that the New York statute is unconstitutional on its face even if construed by the New York courts to impose liability without proof of knowing or reckless falsity, because the New York courts have been assiduous to construe the statute to avoid invasion of freedom of speech and of the press. P. 385 U. S. 397.

15 N.Y.2d 986, 207 N.E.2d 604, reversed and remanded.

Page 385 U. S. 376

Primary Holding
A lawsuit for false light must meet the standard of actual malice to succeed when the defendant has published false information on a matter of public interest.
Facts
Life Magazine, which was owned by Time, published an article on a Broadway play called The Desperate Hours. The article claimed that the play was based on a hostage episode that the Hill family had suffered several years before. In a defamation claim, Hill asserted that the article had cast his family in a false light. He argued that Time had published it with the knowledge that it was false.

Agreeing that the article was false, the court ruled that the Hills were not public figures and rejected Time's assertions of privilege based on matters of public interest and the constitutional right of free speech. The magazine company appealed on the grounds that it had not acted with actual malice and that the Hills were public figures because the opening of the play was a newsworthy event.

Opinions

Majority

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

Even though the Hills did not seek public attention, they can become public figures against their will. They were not public figures during the period between the hostage episode and the play, but the opening of the play is a newsworthy event that restores their status as public figures. Constitutional protections on the freedom of the press under the First Amendment apply to protect the article, unless it was based on malice or a reckless disregard for the truth. This is true even though the article was meant to entertain and published for the purpose of commercial gain.

Concurrence

  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

Agreeing with Brennan that an individual's right to privacy is not absolute, Douglas emphasized that the opening of the play moved the family back into the awareness of the general public.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)

Finding that Hill remained a private person, Harlan would have applied a standard of negligence to determine whether Time should be liable for defamation.

Dissent

  • Abe Fortas (Author)

The jury verdict should have been affirmed because the jury instructions captured the malice element and thus sufficiently accounted for the constitutional concerns.

Case Commentary

It is not unconstitutional to permit liability when individuals disseminate deliberate falsehoods, since there is no value to the public in this type of speech. Innocent or negligent misrepresentations, by contrast, would not give rise to liability because of constitutional protections for the press.

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