Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Following is the case brief for Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)

Case Summary of Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.:

  • A Chicago police officer killed someone, and the victim’s family sued in civil court.  The family hired Gertz as their lawyer.
  • A magazine published false statements about Gertz, including calling him a “communist” for representing the family against a police officer.
  • Gertz sued for defamation, and a jury found in his favor.  However, the trial judge reversed the jury’s decision, finding that Gertz did not meet the Supreme Court’s standard in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision.  It held that the New York Times Co. standard does not apply because Gertz is a private individual.  A publisher has less First Amendment protection for statements made about private people because private people are less able to rebut defamatory statements, compared to public figures.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

A Chicago policeman killed someone and was convicted of murder.  The victim’s family members sought to sue the policemen for civil damages and hired petitioner Gertz to represent them.  As a result, a magazine owned by Robert Welch, Inc. published a story that falsely stated that Gertz arranged for the policeman to be framed, implied that Gertz had a criminal record, and called Gertz a “Communist-fronter.”  Gertz brought a libel action against Robert Welch, Inc.

Procedural History:

  • The jury returned a verdict for Gertz.
  • The District Court, however, entered a judgment for Robert Welch, Inc., notwithstanding the verdict.
  • The District Court found that Gertz did not make the required showing under the standard in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
  • The Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does New York Times Co. v. Sullivan apply to a suit by a private person?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Media companies do not enjoy the protection of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan standard if they publish a defamatory falsehood that injures a private individual.

Reasoning:

The First Amendment permits expression of falsehoods, and it is left to the competition of other ideas to undermine the falsehood.  The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan standard — which is that the publisher must have known of the falsehood or acted in reckless disregard of the truth of the statement — provides a level of First Amendment constitutional protection in the context of defamation of a public person.  That is because a public person is able to effectively rebut the statements made by a publisher.

A private citizen, however, is less able to rebut defamatory statements published about him or her, and is more vulnerable to injury from such statements.  Thus, the media should be held to a stricter standard than the New York Times Co. standard when publishing defaming statements about a private person.

Therefore, as long as a State does not allow imposition of liability on a publisher without fault, the States may define the standard of liability for a publisher that publishes defamatory statements about a private person.

A new trial is appropriate because the New York Times Co. standard should not have been applied, and so that the court may determine whether Gertz suffered actual injury.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Blackmun):

There are two reasons to embrace the Court’s opinion and judgment.  First, the Court’s decision will have little impact on the functioning of responsible journalism.  Second, this decision removes the uncertainty that existed from the Court’s prior defamation jurisprudence.

Dissenting Opinion (Burger):

The jury verdict should be reinstated and appropriate damages imposed.  That is because to do otherwise would create a disincentive for lawyers to take on unpopular cases.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

The First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit damages against a publisher in the discussion of public affairs.  The Court of Appeals decision should be affirmed.

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan):

The New York Times Co. standard should be applied here because the published statements were on public issues.

Dissenting Opinion (White):

The Court’s decision strikes down a number of state libel laws.  That exercise of legislative activity is inappropriate, particularly absent a briefing on those issues.

Significance:

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. is an important decision because it recognizes that people have more freedom to make statements about public officials than about private people.  The Court, quite practically, recognized that public officials have the ability to effectively fight back against defamatory statements made about them, whereas private individuals are virtually powerless.  Yet, a private individual cannot hold a publisher liable unless he or she is actually injured by the defamatory statements.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

Welcome all discussions

avatar

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
Notify of