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

Annotate this Case

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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Primary Holding

Liability in defamation cases against individuals cannot be imposed without fault, but states otherwise can craft their own defamation laws. However, plaintiffs are limited to actual damages if the state does not require actual malice to be shown.

Facts

The family of a man who was killed by a Chicago police officer, Richard Nuccio, enlisted lawyer Elmer Gertz to bring a wrongful death claim against Nuccio after his conviction for second-degree murder. An article on the Nuccio cases later appeared in American Opinion. It was part of a series that asserted that Communists were trying to undermine the operation of local police forces so that they would be replaced by a national police force that the Communists could more easily manipulate. The article on Nuccio asserted that he had been framed by the prosecution and that Gertz had collaborated with Communist organizations of which he was a member in securing the conviction. American Opinion also suggested that Gertz had been involved in criminal activity and was a "Leninist" or "Communist-fronter," which (at least in that era) were considered insults. Gertz filed a defamation claim against the publication's owner.

Procedural History

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois - 306 F. Supp. 310 (N.D. Ill. 1969)

Defendant's motion to dismiss denied. The publisher had moved for summary judgment because Gertz was allegedly a public figure and subject to the heightened pleading requirements of a defamation claim under the Supreme Court decision in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts. It argued that he could not demonstrate actual malice. The Court rejected this argument because the magazine editor stated in an affidavit that he had not attempted to fact-check the statements in the article, which the Court found might constitute reckless disregard for the truth.

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois - 322 F. Supp. 997 (N.D. Ill. 1970)

Judgment for plaintiff. The Court found that Gertz was neither a public official nor a public figure, so the jury was instructed to consider only damages. They arrived at a verdict of $50,000.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit - 471 F.2d 801 (7th Cir. 1972)

Affirmed. The Seventh Circuit was not completely convinced that Gertz was not a public figure and did not believe that he had proved actual malice, and it noted that the information concerned a topic of public interest, which would allow the elevated standard to apply even if the plaintiff was not a public figure. It doubted whether Gertz could prove reckless disregard for the truth. Bizarrely, however, it affirmed the verdict.

Opinions

Majority

  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • Potter Stewart
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Powell agreed with the trial court in finding that Gertz was not a public figure who would trigger the elevated standard in a defamation claim. In his view, people can become public figures only by consciously seeking out that status. He also felt that Gertz's status as a private individual was more important than a consideration of whether the topic was a matter of public concern. Thus, a lower standard was applicable to his libel claim.

On the other hand, Powell held that plaintiffs, even private individuals, needed to show some fault and that state statutes imposing strict liability for libel claims were invalid. The availability of punitive damages, such as the award in this case, must be contingent on proof of actual malice. For this reason, the majority ordered a new trial.

Concurrence

  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

This opinion presented a chance for Blackmun to tie together some strands of defamation doctrine that he had felt were unclear, particularly those related to the decision in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc. He did not believe that the Court's decision would have an impact on ethical standards in journalism, as the dissenters feared.

Dissent

  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

Raising an issue central to his tenure on the Court, White felt that the majority had engaged in legislative activity by striking down a vast range of state libel laws. This struck him as an excessive use of judicial power.

Dissent

  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

Quite the opposite of White, fellow dissenter Douglas felt that this decision opened the door for applying a simple negligence standard to libel claims. Even imposing strict liability, according to him, made the task of restoring an ordinary person's reputation too challenging.

Dissent

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)

Brennan echoed Douglas in warning about the prospect of the media censoring itself too strictly, resulting in a dearth of information on matters of public concern.

Dissent

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Focused on the fact that Gertz was a lawyer representing a client, Burger called attention to the possible impact on the legal profession if attorneys became concerned about representing controversial clients.

Case Commentary

Despite striking down the strict liability laws, this case limits the broad First Amendment protections for the media established by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, distinguishing between matters of public concern and those involving private individuals. It is important to note that there is no opinion privilege against libel, except in New York where state courts have created a nearly universal privilege.

Gertz prevailed when the case was sent back for retrial, and that verdict survived later stages of appeal, although the process did not end until 14 years after the initial district court decision.

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