The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

8/ Privilege to Discuss Individuals "Private Libel" Confined by Gertz v. Welch

In the three-year period following the Supreme Court decision in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, some seventeen states and six United States courts of appeals followed the plurality opinion in that case as ruling law. Specifically, they held that there could be no libel judgment for "discussion and communication involving matters of public or general concern" without proof of a calculated or reckless falsehood.1 One of these many holdings, in the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, came in the case of Gertz v. Welch. And this holding was reviewed by the Supreme Court, on a writ of certiorari, to "reconsider the extent of a publisher's constitutional privilege for defamation of a private citizen."2

Then, on 25 June 1974, a majority of the Supreme Court, mustered only because one justice felt a need to eliminate the "unsureness engendered by Rosenbloom's diversity," rejected the public issue rationale for libel cases.3 Instead, the Court in a 5-4 opinion stated in effect that the "ordinary citizen, when libeled by a publication defamatory on its face, must prove some degree of culpability on the part of the publisher beyond the circulation to the public of a damaging falsehood."4 It also held there had to be "competent evidence" of actual injury to reputation before any damages could be awarded.5Additionally there could be no presumed or punitive damages without proof that the publisher knew his communication was false or recklessly disregarded whether it was false or not. These standards were declared to be the "minimum" that states had to follow in awarding libel damages to private individuals.

For all practical purposes, the Court had adopted the view of the dissenters in the Rosenbloom case. The pendulum, in Gertz v. Welch, had swung in the opposite direction. With changes in the

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