Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 14, 1973
Decided June 25, 1974
Full case name Elmer Gertz v. Robert Welch, Incorporated
Citations 418 U.S. 323 (more)
94 S. Ct. 2997; 41 L. Ed. 2d 789; 1974 U.S. LEXIS 88; 1 Media L. Rep. 1633
Prior history Motion to dismiss denied, 306 F. Supp. 310 (N.D. Ill. 1969); judgment for plaintiff, N.D. Ill.; judgment set aside, judgment for defendant, 322 F. Supp. 997 (N.D. Ill. 1970); affirmed, 471 F.2d 801 (7th Cir. 1972); rehearing denied, 7th Circuit, 9-7-72; cert. granted, 410 U.S. 925 (1973)
Subsequent history Retrial on remand, judgment for plaintiff, N.D. Ill.; affirmed, 680 F.2d 527 (7th Cir. 1982); certiorari denied, 459 U.S. 1226 (1983)
Holding
The First Amendment permits states to formulate their own standards of libel for defamatory statements made about private figures, as long as liability is not imposed without fault. Seventh Circuit reversed.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Powell, joined by Stewart, Marshall, Blackmun, Rehnquist
Concurrence Blackmun
Dissent Burger
Dissent Brennan
Dissent Douglas
Dissent White
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974),[1] was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States established the standard of First Amendment protection against defamation claims brought by private individuals. The Court held that, so long as they do not impose liability without fault, states are free to establish their own standards of liability for defamatory statements made about private individuals. However, the Court also ruled that if the state standard is lower than actual malice, the standard applying to public figures, then only actual damages may be awarded.

The consequence is that strict liability for defamation is unconstitutional in the United States; the plaintiff must be able to show that the defendant acted negligently or with an even higher level of mens rea. In many other common law countries, strict liability for defamation is still the rule.

Background of the case[edit]

In 1968, a Chicago police officer named Richard Nuccio shot and killed a young man (Ronald Nelson). After the officer was convicted of second-degree murder, the victim's family retained a local lawyer named Elmer Gertz to represent them in a civil action against the officer.

A year later, American Opinion, a publication of the John Birch Society, ran a series of articles alleging the existence of a Communist conspiracy to discredit local police agencies and thus facilitate their replacement by a single national force that could more effectively implement the dictatorship they planned to impose on the country. One of those touched on the Nuccio case, claiming that the officer had been framed at his criminal trial and making strong allegations about Gertz. It claimed that he had orchestrated Nuccio's conviction and that he was a member of various communist front organizations. It further implied that he had a lengthy criminal record himself and used various anti-communist terms of abuse ("Leninist", "Communist-fronter") to describe him.

Lower court proceedings[edit]

Gertz filed suit in federal court against Robert Welch, Inc. (the John Birch Society's legal name), claiming its article had defamed and injured his reputation as a lawyer. The John Birch Society moved for summary judgment, arguing that Gertz was a public figure under the recently enunciated Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts standard, which applied the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan standard to anyone who was sufficiently public, not just government officials. Thus, it was argued, their statements about him were specially privileged and the plaintiff would have to demonstrate actual malice. However, the magazine's editor admitted in an affidavit filed with the motion that he had made no independent effort to verify the claims in the article and had simply relied on the author's reputation and previous work.

The court denied the motion, suggesting that Gertz might only need to prove reckless disregard for the truth. After trial, however, the court determined that he was neither a public figure nor a public official, and instructed the jury to consider only damages. Gertz was awarded $50,000.

Gertz appealed to contest the applicability of the New York Times standard to this case. The Seventh Circuit expressed some misgivings about the trial court's finding that Gertz was not a public figure but did not overturn the decision. It noted, however, that he had not demonstrated actual malice either but suggested that since the article concerned a subject of public interest, that standard could be held to apply without regard to the status of the individual or individuals alleging libel. Citing precedent, it said that Gertz also could not prove reckless disregard on the basis of failure to investigate alone unless he could also prove that the respondents had good cause to believe the article might be false. Yet, it affirmed the trial court's verdict.

The Court's decision[edit]

The Supreme Court decided the case in a 5-4 majority opinion delivered by Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr., with a separate concurrence by Harry Blackmun. All four dissenting justices filed separate opinions.

Majority opinion[edit]

After reviewing the case history and prior decisions, Powell began with a reminder that "Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea ... (it) requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters."

However, he rejected the idea that the mere public interest of the subject should outweigh any consideration of Gertz's status as a private or public figure. The latter, he noted, have access to more ways of counteracting allegations about them than private figures do, and thus they deserved a lower standard to prove libel. He also highly doubted that one could involuntarily become a public figure.

Gertz "had achieved no general fame or notoriety in the community," despite some public service in his past, and therefore did not meet the Sullivan or Curtis tests. "He plainly did not thrust himself into the vortex of this public issue, nor did he engage the public's attention in an attempt to influence its outcome."

"For these reasons, we conclude that the States should retain substantial latitude in their efforts to enforce a legal remedy for defamatory falsehood injurious to the reputation of a private individual," Powell said.

However, in the one aspect of the decision that was favorable to the appellees, the Court also ruled that states could not impose a strict liability standard for defamation (i.e., plaintiffs had to be able to show fault of some kind) and that juries could not be allowed to award punitive damages, such as the $50,000 Gertz had received, absent any showing of actual malice, since juries could use that power to punish unpopular opinions. A new trial was ordered.

Blackmun's short concurrence praised his brethren for clarifying an issue he had felt was left undecided in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia Inc., one of the earlier defamation cases. He also scoffed at fears expressed by dissenters that the press was now too unconstrained: "What the Court has done, I believe, will have little, if any, practical effect on the functioning of responsible journalism."

Dissenting opinions[edit]

The minority chose a variety of grounds for its disagreement. In the longest, Byron White accused his colleagues of overreaching, a common theme of his dissents. "The Court, in a few printed pages, has federalized major aspects of libel law by declaring unconstitutional in important respects the prevailing defamation law in all or most of the 50 States," he said. "There are wholly insufficient grounds for scuttling the libel laws of the States in such wholesale fashion, to say nothing of deprecating the reputation interest of ordinary citizens and rendering them powerless to protect themselves... It is an ill-considered exercise of the power entrusted to this Court."

William O. Douglas, on the other hand, felt that libel laws were too strict even as it was, and that leaving liability standards for private figures up to the states was too capricious:

This of course leaves the simple negligence standard as an option with the jury free to impose damages upon a finding that the publisher failed to act as "a reasonable man." With such continued erosion of First Amendment protection, I fear that it may well be the reasonable man who refrains from speaking.

William Brennan joined him in fearing that the press in some states could be too easily restricted and practice self-censorship in reporting on public affairs as a result. Warren Burger's short dissent worried that the decision might make it less likely that lawyers would be willing to take the cases of unpopular clients.

Disposition[edit]

Gertz won the retrial, and the verdict was sustained on appeal. 680 F.2d 527 (7th Cir. 1982). The case finally ended when the Court denied the John Birch Society certiorari in 1983. 459 U.S. 1226 (1983). Gertz died in 2000.

Subsequent jurisprudence[edit]

Since the majority opinion emphatically stated that there was "no such thing as a false idea," observers and libel law experts expected the court to define an opinion privilege against libel the next time an appropriate case came up. It took sixteen years, and they were surprised and disappointed by Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., which explicitly rejected the idea, saying that existing protections it had recognized were sufficient to meet the requirements of the First Amendment. Only in New York, where state courts have ruled all statements of opinion are protected as long as they do not allege illegal conduct, does the privilege exist.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Text of Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Gertz, Elmer, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.: The Story of the Landmark Libel Case, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8093-1813-X.