Wolston v. Reader's Digest Assn., Inc.
Annotate this Case
443 U.S. 157 (1979)
U.S. Supreme Court
Wolston v. Reader's Digest Assn., Inc., 443 U.S. 157 (1979)
Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
Argued April 17, 1979
Decided June 26, 1979
443 U.S. 157
As a result of a grand jury investigation, during 1957 and 1958, of Soviet intelligence agents in the United States, petitioner's aunt and uncle were arrested on, and later pleaded guilty to, espionage charges. In the ensuing months, petitioner, pursuant to grand jury subpoenas, traveled from his home in the District of Columbia to New York City, where the grand jury was sitting, but on one occasion he failed to respond to a subpoena, having previously attempted unsuccessfully to persuade law enforcement authorities not to require him to travel because of his mental condition. A Federal District Judge then issued an order to show cause why petitioner should not be adjudged in criminal contempt of court. Petitioner appeared in court on the return date of this order and offered to testify before the grand jury, but the offer was refused, and thereafter he pleaded guilty to the contempt charge when his pregnant wife became hysterical upon being called to testify as to his mental condition. Petitioner received a suspended sentence. These events were reported in a number of stories in the Washington and New York newspapers, but the publicity subsided following petitioner's sentencing, and he succeeded, for the most part, in returning to the private life he had led prior to such events. In 1974, respondent Reader's Digest Association published a book written by respondent Barron, which describes the Soviet Union's espionage organization and chronicles its activities since World War II. The book was later published by the other respondent publishers. In one passage in the book, petitioner is named as "[a]mong Soviet agents identified in the United States" and "convicted of . . . contempt charges following espionage indictments," and the index lists petitioner as a "Soviet agent in U.S." Petitioner sued respondents, claiming that the above passages in the book were false and defamatory. The District Court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment, holding that petitioner was a "public figure" because, by failing to appear before the grand jury and subjecting himself to a citation for contempt, he "became involved in a controversy of a decidedly public nature in a way that invited attention and comment, and
thereby created in the public an interest in knowing about his connection with espionage"; that the First Amendment therefore precluded recovery unless petitioner proved that respondents had published a defamatory falsehood with "actual malice"; and that the evidence raised no genuine issue with respect to the existence of "actual malice." The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Held: Petitioner was not a public figure within the meaning of this Court's defamation cases, and therefore was not required by the First Amendment to meet the "actual malice" standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, in order to recover from respondents. Pp. 443 U. S. 163-169.
(a) Contrary to respondents' argument and the lower courts' holdings, petitioner does not fall within the category of those public figures who have "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved," Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U. S. 323, 418 U. S. 345. Neither the mere fact that petitioner voluntarily chose not to appear before the grand jury, knowing that this might be attended by publicity, the citation for contempt, nor the simple fact that his failure to appear and the contempt citation attracted media attention, rendered him such a public figure. His failure to appear was in no way calculated to draw attention to himself in order to invite public comment or influence the public with respect to any issue, but rather appears simply to have been the result of his poor health. And there is no evidence that his failure to appear was intended to have, or did in fact have, any effect on any issue of public concern. Pp. 443 U. S. 165-168.
(b) A person who engages in criminal conduct does not automatically become a public figure for purposes of comment on a limited range of issues relating to his conviction. Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U. S. 448. To hold otherwise would create an "open season" for all who sought to defame persons convicted of a crime. Pp. 443 U. S. 168-169.
188 U.S.App.D.C. 185, 578 F.2d 427, reversed.
REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 443 U. S. 169. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 443 U. S. 172.