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.:

  • The family of a murder victim hired petitioner to be their attorney in a civil suit against the murderer.  Respondent media organization published defamatory statements about petitioner, including statements that he was a Communist and framed the murderer.
  • Petitioner sued respondent for libel and won a jury verdict.  The District Court overturned that verdict, finding that petitioner did not meet the “knowing or reckless disregard” liability standard against media organizations established in New York Times v. Sullivan.  The Court of Appeals affirmed.
  • The Supreme Court reversed.  The Court held that while the New York Times standard applies to public figures, it does not apply to defamatory media statements made about private individuals.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Nuccio, a Chicago policeman, was convicted of murder.  The murder victim’s family hired petitioner Elmer Gertz to represent them in the civil case against Nuccio.  Respondent, in its ongoing attempts to alert the public of a nationwide conspiracy to undermine local law enforcement, published an article called “FRAME UP:  Richard Nuccio And The War On Police.” The article stated that the testimony at Nuccio’s criminal trial was false, and that it was a Communist campaign against the police.

Even though petitioner Gertz had no connection to the criminal trial, the article characterized him as the architect of the “frame up.”  It also stated he had a criminal record and that he was a Communist, none of which was true.  Accordingly, petitioner brought a libel action against respondent.        

Procedural History:

  • A jury in the libel case found for petitioner.
  • The District Court found that the standard in New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) controlled the case.  Because petitioner could not prove the requisite knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth under the New York Times standard, the court found for respondent notwithstanding the verdict.
  • The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Can a media organization that published falsehoods about a private individual avoid liability for the harm caused by the statements based on the New York Times v. Sullivan standard? No.

Judgment:

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

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Freedom of the press does not protect media organizations from liability for actual injury caused by defamatory false statements made about a private individual.

Reasoning:

The standard in New York Times v. Sullivan provides that media organizations are not liable for defamatory falsehoods made about public officials or figures unless the statement was made with knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.  The high standard of proof, however, does not apply to falsehoods made about private individuals, even if the subject matter is arguably of public concern.

The reason for the distinction is because public figures have access to channels of communication to rebut false statements, and voluntarily choose to be in the public eye. Private individuals do not have such access, nor do they seek such media attention. Accordingly, media organizations should be liable for actual (not punitive) damages caused by defamatory falsehoods made about private individuals.  Further, the facts in this case demonstrate that petitioner was neither a public official nor public figure.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Blackmun):

While the majority opinion departs from a recent plurality opinion by the Court, it is important that the law is made clear.  Accordingly, it is appropriate to set the boundary of the New York Times doctrine by only applying it in the context of public officials and figures, not private individuals.  It is also appropriate to only allow media organizations to be liable in such cases for actual, not punitive, damages.

Dissenting Opinion (Burger):

The Court in this case has abandoned the natural evolution of defamation jurisprudence and permitted the potential of an unclear “negligence” liability against the media.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

The First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit any liability against media organizations for discussions of public affairs.

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan):

The proper balance between avoiding media self-censorship and protecting an individual’s reputation is found in the New York Times standard, which should applied to both public figures and private individuals involved in matters of public concern.  Because petitioner failed to prove that respondent published the information with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, the lower court’s decision should be affirmed.

Significance:

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. identifies a distinction between defamation liability for media organizations based upon whether the subject of the media statement is a public or private individual.  Yet, it is still the rule that strict liability for defamation is unconstitutional in the United States, which is not the case in other countries.

Student Resources:

https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/418/323/case.html

https://www.oyez.org/cases/1973/72-617

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