Milkovich v. Lorain Journal
497 U.S. 1 (1990)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Milkovich v. Lorain Journal, 497 U.S. 1 (1990)

Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.

No. 89-645

Argued April 24, 1990

Decided June 21, 1990

497 U.S. 1

Syllabus

While petitioner Milkovich was a high school wrestling coach, his team was involved in an altercation at a match with another high school's team. Both he and School Superintendent Scott testified at an investigatory hearing before the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA), which placed the team on probation. They testified again during a suit by several parents, in which a county court overturned OHSAA's ruling. The day after the court's decision, respondent Lorain Journal Company's newspaper published a column authored by respondent Diadiun, which implied that Milkovich lied under oath in the judicial proceeding. Milkovich commenced a defamation action against respondents in the county court, alleging that the column accused him of committing the crime of perjury, damaged him in his occupation of teacher and coach, and constituted libel per se. Ultimately, the trial court granted summary judgment for respondents. The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed, considering itself bound by the State Supreme Court's determination in Superintendent Scott's separate action against respondents that, as a matter law, the article was constitutionally protected opinion.

Held:

1. The First Amendment does not require a separate "opinion" privilege limiting the application of state defamation laws. While the Amendment does limit such application, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, the breathing space that freedoms of expression require to survive is adequately secured by existing constitutional doctrine.

Page 497 U. S. 2

Foremost, where a media defendant is involved, a statement on matters of public concern must be provable as false before liability can be assessed, Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U. S. 767, thus ensuring full constitutional protection for a statement of opinion having no provably false factual connotation. Next, statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual are protected, see, e.g., Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v. Bresler, 398 U. S. 6, thus assuring that public debate will not suffer for lack of "imaginative expression" or the "rhetorical hyperbole" which has traditionally added much to the discourse of this Nation. The reference to "opinion" in dictum in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U. S. 323, 418 U. S. 339-340, was not intended to create a wholesale defamation exemption for "opinion." Read in context, the Gertz dictum is merely a reiteration of Justice Holmes' "marketplace of ideas" concept, see Abrams v. United States, 250 U. S. 616, 250 U. S. 630. Simply couching a statement -- "Jones is a liar" -- in terms of opinion -- "In my opinion, Jones is a liar" -- does not dispel the factual implications contained in the statement. Pp. 497 U. S. 11-21.

2. A reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statements in the Diadiun column imply an assertion that Milkovich perjured himself in a judicial proceeding. The article did not use the sort of loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language that would negate the impression that Diadiun was seriously maintaining Milkovich committed perjury. Nor does the article's general tenor negate this impression. In addition, the connotation that Milkovich committed perjury is sufficiently factual that it is susceptible of being proved true or false by comparing, inter alia, his testimony before the OHSAA board with his subsequent testimony before the trial court. Pp. 497 U. S. 21-22.

3. This decision balances the First Amendment's vital guarantee of free and uninhibited discussion of public issues with the important social values that underlie defamation law and society's pervasive and strong interest in preventing and redressing attacks upon reputation. Pp. 497 U. S. 22-23.

46 Ohio App.3d 20, 545 N.E.2d 1320 (1989), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 497 U. S. 23.

Page 497 U. S. 3

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Primary Holding

If a statement that appears to be based on an objective fact is false, there is no separate opinion privilege that protects its maker from liability in a libel action.

Facts

The high school wrestling team coached by Milkovich got into a fight after a match, and the athletic association censured Milkovich for his involvement. After a court hearing, the order of censure was nullified. However, a sportswriter, Diadium, wrote in a publication run by Lorain Journal that Milkovich had lied in his testimony at the hearing.

Milkovich sued for libel, but the state supreme court ruled that the article was constitutionally protected because it was an editorial and thus an opinion rather than a statement of fact.

Opinions

Majority

  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Antonin Scalia
  • Anthony M. Kennedy

Expressions of opinion often are based an implied objective fact, so there should not be a blanket protection on material written as an opinion. The First Amendment still provides strong protections for defendants in libel actions. Plaintiffs cannot support a claim based on a statement that cannot reasonably be interpreted as implying a false fact, and the requirement of actual malice for people and issues of public concern is demanding. There is no need to create an additional privilege that would cover all editorials.

Suggesting that the plaintiff committed perjury is a factual statement because it can be objectively proven or disproven.

Dissent

  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall

While following the same standard for determining whether a statement contains a sufficient factual component to give rise to a libel case, Brennan felt that the column did not imply that the plaintiff had committed perjury. He interpreted it as stating the defendant's subjective opinion that the plaintiff must have lied, based on what the journalist saw when attending the match.

Case Commentary

The Supreme Court showed its reluctance to distinguish between opinions and facts in applying the First Amendment protections for speech on matters of public concern.

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