The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

6/ A Constitutional Command Libel Rule Is Explained, Enforced

In the four-year period immediately following the Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts decisions, the Supreme Court issued a series of opinions in which lower federal and state courts were "instructed" in the use of the new constitutional rule of libel. In issuing these opinions, the Court more sharply defined the standard of a "knowing or reckless falsehood." And it also clarified some other points. For instance, the Court had occasion to reiterate that the constitutional standard--despite the many opinions in Curtis Publishing Co.--was the same for public figures and public officials, and that this category definitely included candidates for office. It also called attention to the fact that the constitutional standard had been "reformulated" to protect discussion of anything in both officials' and candidates' private lives that affected fitness for office. Above all, though, the Court in this series of opinions put the lower federal and state courts on notice that the new libel standard it had enunciated was not optional.1 It was a constitutional command, and that command would be enforced.

The first occasion for enforcement came when a West Virginia court awarded a court clerk a $5,000 libel verdict for editorials written about the clerk's conduct during his reelection campaign. The jury in making the award had been allowed to consider "bad or corrupt motives" or "personal spite, ill will or a desire to injure plaintiff."2 This fell woefully short of the requirement that false criticism had to be published with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth. Hence the Supreme Court granted certorari, in effect a demand that records of the trial be sent to it for review. Then, in a per curiam opinion issued 12 June 1967, the Court made it clear that West Virginia courts could not award damages for false

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