The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

4/ An Expanded "Public-Official Rule"
Limits Public Employee, Union, Criminal Libels

Only eight months after the revolutionary New York Times ruling, the Supreme Court, in the case of Garrison v. Louisiana, expanded the new constitutional privilege to discuss public officials. Here the Court said the same standards that protected individuals from civil libel judgments also protected them from criminal libel prosecutions. It added that even false and defamatory statements concerning private behavior that affected officials' public conduct were not subject to criminal sanctions without proof of actual malice--the knowing or reckless falsehood.1 This was called the "public-official rule," and it was substituted for the then existing criminal libel laws in every state of the Union.

But while the "public-official rule" was conclusively defined, those to whom it applied were not. And the Court in early 1966, in the case of Rosenblatt v. Baer, said it would have to apply to some government employees as well as elected officials. Those employees thought by the public to have substantial responsibility for controlling government issues, the opinion stated, would have to prove the knowing or reckless falsehood to obtain a libel judgment.2 Further, in a companion suit, Linn v. United Plant Guard Workers of Americal Local 114, the Court said individuals involved in union disputes would have to meet the same standard of proof--actual malice--before they, too, could receive any libel damages.3 The Court obviously had used the New York Times decision as the foundation for building further constitutional protections for "uninhibited, robust, and wide open" debate.

The first of these "building" decisions, Garrison v. Louisiana, issued 23 November 1964, overturned a criminal libel conviction of the New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. He had been pros-

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