Harte-Hanks Communs. v. Connaughton,
491 U.S. 657 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Harte-Hanks Communs. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657 (1989)

Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton

No. 88-10

Argued March 20, 1989

Decided June 22, 1989

491 U.S. 657


Respondent was the unsuccessful challenger for the position of Municipal Judge of Hamilton, Ohio, in an election conducted on November 8, 1983. A local newspaper, the Journal News, published by petitioner supported the reelection of the incumbent. A little over a month before the election, the incumbent's Director of Court Services resigned and was arrested on bribery charges, and a grand jury investigation of those charges was in progress on November 1, 1983. On that day, the Journal News ran a front-page story quoting a grand jury witness (Thompson) as stating that respondent had used "dirty tricks" and offered her and her sister jobs and a trip to Florida "in appreciation" for their help in the investigation. Respondent filed a diversity action against petitioner for libel in Federal District Court, alleging that the story was false, had damaged his personal and professional reputation, and had been published with actual malice. After listening to six days of testimony and three taped interviews -- one conducted by respondent and two by Journal News reporters -- and reviewing the contents of 56 exhibits, the jury was given instructions defining the elements of public figure libel and directed to answer three special verdicts. It found by a preponderance of the evidence that the story in question was defamatory and false, and by clear and convincing proof that the story was published with actual malice, and awarded respondent $5,000 in compensatory damages and $195,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It separately considered the evidence supporting each of the jury's special verdicts, concluding that neither the finding that the story was defamatory nor the finding that it was false was clearly erroneous. In considering the actual malice issue, but without attempting to make an independent evaluation of the credibility of conflicting oral testimony concerning the subsidiary facts underlying the jury's finding of actual malice, the court identified 11 subsidiary facts that the jury "could have" found, and held that such findings would not have been clearly erroneous, and, based on its independent review, that, when considered cumulatively, they provided clear and convincing evidence of actual malice.

Page 491 U. S. 658


1. A showing of

"highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers"

cannot alone support a verdict in favor of a public figure plaintiff in a libel action. Rather, such a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the false and defamatory material with actual malice, i.e., with knowledge of falsity or with a reckless disregard for the truth. Although there is language in the Court of Appeals' opinion suggesting that it applied the less severe professional standards rule, when read as a whole, it is clear that this language is merely supportive of the court's ultimate conclusion that the Journal News acted with actual malice. Pp. 491 U. S. 663-668.

2. A reviewing court in a public figure libel case must "exercise independent judgment and determine whether the record establishes actual malice with convincing clarity" to ensure that the verdict is consistent with the constitutional standard set out in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, and subsequent decisions. See Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U. S. 485. Based on this Court's review of the entire record, the Court of Appeals properly held that the evidence did in fact support a finding of actual malice, but it should have taken a somewhat different approach in reaching that result. While the jury may have found each of the 11 subsidiary facts, the case should have been decided on a less speculative ground. Given the trial court's instructions, the jury's answers to the three special interrogatories, and an understanding of those facts not in dispute, it is evident that the jury must have rejected (1) the testimony of petitioner's witnesses that Thompson's sister, the most important witness to the bribery charges against the Director of Court Services, was not contacted simply because respondent failed to place her in touch with the newspaper; (2) the testimony of the editorial director of the Journal News that he did not listen to the taped interviews simply because he thought that they would provide him with no new information; and (3) the testimony of Journal News employees who asserted that they believed Thompson's allegations were substantially true. When those findings are considered alongside the undisputed evidence, the conclusion that the newspaper acted with actual malice inextricably follows. The evidence in the record in this case, when reviewed in its entirety, is "unmistakably" sufficient to support a finding of actual malice. Pp. 491 U. S. 685-693.

842 F.2d 825, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which

Page 491 U. S. 659

REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. 491 U. S. 694. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 491 U. S. 694, and KENNEDY, J., post, p. 491 U. S. 696, filed concurring opinions. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 491 U. S. 696.

Primary Holding

Falling below reasonable standards of reporting does not necessarily satisfy the malice requirement in a defamation claim involving speech on a matter of public concern. However, the claim could succeed despite First Amendment protections if the reporter acted with reckless disregard for the truth, which would suffice to satisfy the malice requirement.


The Journal News, a newspaper run by Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc., advocated for the incumbent candidate in a race for the office of Municipal Judge. A member of that judge's office resigned shortly before the election and was investigated for allegations of bribery. A witness testified before the grand jury that Connaughton, the challenger candidate, had tried to bribe her and her sister to testify against the accused. This testimony appeared on the front page of the Journal News in the week before the election.

After Connaughton lost the election, he sued Harte-Hanks for libel and prevailed at trial. Harte-Hanks filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict but was denied. The state appellate court found that the article was defamatory and false in affirming the jury's decision.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

When a public figure like a political candidate brings a defamation claim, the appellate court must review the record in its entirety to determine whether the public figure met the burden of showing that the statements were made with a reckless disregard for the truth. This is because the First Amendment has strong protections on speech, and it is important to review the record carefully at each stage of the appeal to ensure that they are not violated. In this situation, the appellate court used the appropriate standard in determining that the newspaper had failed to meet appropriate journalistic standards of investigation and thus had acted with actual malice, which means either a knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth.

However, the appellate court had not engaged in a sufficiently thorough examination of the record. It should have provided more substantive grounds for its decision rather than stating that the jury could have found the defendant liable. The evidence contained in the record reveals that the jury should have found the defendant liable, since multiple witnesses refuted the allegation published in the newspaper, and the newspaper failed to consult Connaughton's own testimony or the evidence of other key witnesses. While the appellate court reached the proper conclusion, Stevens felt the need to remind courts in this situation to examine the record more carefully in the future.


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)


  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)


  • Antonin Scalia (Author)

Case Commentary

This case required an appellate court to review the entire record to check that the plaintiff had properly made out the elements of the claim, a rigorous standard that illustrates the importance of balancing the freedom of the press and the public's need for information on matters of public concern against an individual's interest in protecting reputation.

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