Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps,
475 U.S. 767 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767 (1986)

Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps

No. 84-1491

Argued December 3, 1985

Decided April 21, 1986

475 U.S. 767


Appellee Hepps is the principal stockholder of appellee corporation that franchises a chain of stores selling beer, soft drinks, and snacks. Appellant owner published a series of articles in its Philadelphia newspaper whose general theme was that Hepps, the franchisor corporation, and its franchisees (also appellees) had links to organized crime and used some of those links to influence the State's governmental processes. Appellees then brought a defamation suit in a Pennsylvania state court against the newspaper owner and the authors (also appellants) of the articles in question. Concluding that the Pennsylvania statute giving the defendant the burden of proving the truth of allegedly defamatory statements violated the Federal Constitution, the trial court instructed the jury that the plaintiff bore the burden of proving falsity. The jury ruled for appellants, and therefore awarded no damages to appellees. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, concluding that a showing of fault did not require a showing of falsity, held that to place the burden of showing truth on the defendant did not unconstitutionally inhibit free debate, and remanded the case for a new trial.

Held: In a case such as this one, where a newspaper publishes speech of public concern about a private figure, the private-figure plaintiff cannot recover damages without also showing that the statements at issue are false. Because in such a case the scales are in an uncertain balance as to whether the statements are true or false, the Constitution requires that the scales be tipped in favor of protecting true speech. To ensure that true speech on matters of public concern is not deterred, the common law presumption that defamatory speech is false cannot stand. While Pennsylvania's "shield law," which allows employees of the media to refuse to divulge their sources, places a heavier burden on appellees, the precise scope of that law is unclear and, under these circumstances, it does not appear that such law requires a different constitutional standard than would prevail in the absence of such law. Pp. 475 U. S. 771-779.

506 Pa. 304, 485 A.2d 374, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 779. STEVENS,

Page 475 U. S. 768

J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 780.

Primary Holding

Both falsity and fault must be shown in a slander or libel claim brought by an individual against a media outlet.


Articles in publications run by Philadelphia Newspapers suggested that Hepps and his business were connected to organized crime. He brought a libel claim against the company. After the trial judge denied his request for a jury instruction on Philadelphia Newspapers' use of the reporter's shield law, the jury found for the defendant. On appeal, the state supreme court ruled that Philadelphia Newspapers needed to prove the truth of the statements to escape liability.



  • Sandra Day O'Connor (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

This case marks a clash between the common law requirement that a defendant prove the truth of the statement and the more recent constitutional requirement that a plaintiff prove the falsity of the statement. When the statements are regarding a matter of public concern, even when they do not regard a public figure, the constitutional concerns must trump the traditional common-law rule. O'Connor also observed that the plaintiff has the burden of proving fault, which is closely tied to proving falsity and not a lesser burden. This makes it especially logical to give the plaintiff the burden in both of those areas.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

The state has an important interest in helping its citizens protect their reputations, which is furthered by the common-law rule. The majority's failure to consider that interest led it to discard that rule too easily and completely.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Case Commentary

This was a relatively limited decision on evidentiary burdens as they apply to speech on matters of public concern. It emphasizes that a plaintiff must go beyond malice in these types of defamation claims to show actual falsity.

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