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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. 418 U.S. 323 (1974)

GERTZ v. ROBERT WELCH, INC. 418 U.S. 323 (1974)

In this major case on libel and the first amendment, the Supreme Court in an opinion by Justice lewis f. powell held, 5–4, that the rule of new york times v. sullivan (1964) did not apply when the party seeking damages for libel is not a public official or a public figure. New York Times had applied the rule of "actual malice": the First Amendment bars a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his conduct in office unless he proves that the publisher or broadcaster made the statement knowing it to be false or "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The Court had extended that rule in 1967 to public figures. In Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc. (1971) a plurality ruled that if the defamation concerned a public issue the actual malice rule extended also to private individuals, who were not public figures. In Gertz the Court, abandoning that rule, held that a private plantiff had to prove actual malice only if seeking punitive damages; the first amendment did not require him to produce such proof merely to recover actual damages for injury to reputation.

Powell reasoned that public officers and public figures had a far greater opportunity to counteract false statements than private persons. Moreover, an official or a candidate for public office knowingly exposes himself to close public scrutiny and criticism, just as public figures knowingly invite attention and comment. The communications media cannot, however, assume that private persons similarly expose themselves to defamation. Powell declared that they "are not only more vulnerable to injury than public officials and public figures; they are also more deserving of recovery." Their only effective redress is resort to a state's libel laws. So long as a state does not permit the press or a broadcaster to be held liable without fault and applies the actual malice rule to requests for punitive damages, the Court held that the First Amendment requires a "less demanding showing than that required by New York Times " and that the states may decide for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for media defendants who defame private persons.

Each of the dissenting Justices wrote a separate opinion. The dissents covered a wide spectrum from greater concern for the defamed party to alarm about the majority's supposedly constrictive interpretation of the First Amendment. Chief Justice warren e. burger worried that the party libeled in this case was a lawyer who ought not to be invidiously identified with his client. Justice william o. douglas thought all libel laws to be unconstitutional. Justice william j. brennan preferred the actual malice test to be applied to private individuals in matters of public concern. Justice byron r. white, opposing the Court's restriction of the common law of libels, condemned the nationalization of so large a part of libel law.

Leonard W. Levy
(1986)

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