Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.
419 U.S. 245 (1974)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co., 419 U.S. 245 (1974)

Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co.

No. 73-5520

Argued November 13, 1974

Decided December 18, 1974

419 U.S. 245


Petitioners, a mother and her son, brought a diversity action against respondents, a newspaper publisher and a reporter, for invasion of privacy based on a feature story in the newspaper discussing the impact upon petitioners' family of the death of the father in a bridge collapse. The story concededly contained a number of inaccuracies and false statements about the family. The District Judge struck the claims for punitive damages for lack of evidence of malice "within the legal definition of that term," but allowed the case to go to the jury on the "false light" theory of invasion of privacy, after instructing the jurors that liability could be imposed only if they found that the false statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth, and the jury returned a verdict for compensatory damages. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Judge should have directed a verdict for respondents, since his finding of no malice in striking the punitive damages claims was based on the definition of "actual malice" established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, and thus was a determination that there was no evidence of the knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth required for liability.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in setting aside the jury's verdict. Pp. 419 U. S. 251-254.

(a) The record discloses that the District Judge, when he dismissed the punitive damages claims, was not referring to the New York Times "actual malice" standard, but to the common law standard of malice that is generally required under state tort law to support an award of punitive damages, and that, in a "false light" case, would focus on the defendant's attitude toward the plaintiff's privacy, and not on the truth or falsity of the material published, and thus was not determining that petitioners had failed to introduce evidence of knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. Pp. 419 U. S. 251-252.

Page 419 U. S. 246

(b) Moreover, the evidence was sufficient to support jury findings that respondents had published knowing or reckless falsehoods about petitioners, particularly with respect to "calculated falsehoods" about petitioner mother's being present when the story was being prepared, and that respondent reporter's writing of the story was within the scope of his employment at the newspaper so as to render respondent publisher vicariously liable under respondeat superior for the knowing falsehoods in the story. Pp. 419 U. S. 252-254.

484 F.2d 150, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 419 U. S. 254.

Primary Holding
Knowing falsehoods regarding a matter of public concern are not protected under the First Amendment, and a media outlet can be sued for invasion of privacy in this situation.
After a bridge collapsed, killing Cantrell's husband among others, Forest City Publishing investigated the accident. One of its reporters went to the Cantrell home to interview the family on the effect of the father's death. Cantrell was not home at the time, so the reporter interviewed and took pictures of the children. The reporter did not interview Cantrell at any other time before the story appeared. It included an alleged interview with an description of Cantrell, among other factual flaws.

Cantrell argued that the article had invaded her privacy by casting her children and her in a false light. After the trial judge dismissed the punitive damages request, the jury found for Cantrell based on an instruction that it could find liability based on a reckless disregard for the truth. The appellate court reversed the jury verdict on the grounds that dismissing the punitive damages issue because there was no actual malice meant that the entire claim should be dismissed because actual malice was necessary to show liability for any damages.



  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Ruling that the trial judge properly instructed the jury, Stewart found that the use of "malice" in the lower court was in a different sense from its meaning as applied to defamation cases. The jury did not act unreasonably in finding that the defendant knew that parts of the story were false and nevertheless published them, showing a reckless disregard for the truth.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

Case Commentary

When considered together with other cases involving the same tort, the decision shows that actual malice or gross recklessness rather than ordinary negligence is required to establish a cause of action for invasion of privacy.

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