Libels Bound by Public-Official Rule
The rationale behind the United States Supreme Court decisions limiting libel judgments for public officials had been the nation's commitment to "uninhibited, robust, wide open" debate on public issues. Such a rationale could easily be given expansive interpretation, and this is exactly what happened in lower and federal courts.1 Even the Supreme Court, in Rosenblatt v. Baer, had hinted at a readiness to expand the public-official rule--to those who thrust themselves into the vortex of discussions on matters of public concern.2 The Court, however, did not face this issue squarely until June 1967, in the cases of Associated Press v. Walker and Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts. In these cases, decided simultaneously, the Court held by a 5-4 margin that public figures as well as public officials could collect libel damages only by proving that defamatory falsehoods about them were made with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of whether they were true or false.3
The Associated Press and Curtis Publishing Co. decisions, though, did not occur in a void. Only four months before, the Supreme Court had applied the public-official rule to another, but related, area of law. It had ruled in Time, Inc., v. Hill that constitutional standards had to be met before damages could be awarded to a private individual for invasion of privacy resulting from false reports on matters of public interest. The standards required, the Court said, proof that publications were made with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard of the truth.4 Though nondefamatory falsehoods were involved, the same constitutional privilege of discussion applied. And it applied to a discussion of a private individual in a magazine article about a matter of public concern.