The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

7/ A Constitutional Dilemma Court Splits on Privilege to Discuss Issues

When the Supreme Court on 7 June 1971 issued a many faceted decision in the case of Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., it appeared that the constitutional privilege in libel cases could have reached its so-called outer limits. The Court in this case upheld a lower federal court in requiring that a knowing or reckless falsehood be proved before libel damages could be obtained by a private individual who claimed he was defamed in broadcasts discussing a police campaign to enforce obscenity laws.1 The surface conclusion was that the Supreme Court had extended the constitutional privilege of discussion--previously limited to public officials and public figures--to include libels of private individuals that occurred in discussion of public issues. And it had--to an extent. But the impetus for the decision had come in a plurality, not a majority, opinion. And it was only partially endorsed in separate opinions by two concurring justices, one of whom stipulated that public issues being discussed had to focus on public officials.

Actually, the Court was badly fractured in this decision. Five separate opinions were written, and there were just as many justices dissenting--three--as there were signing the plurality holding. However, all eight of the justices taking part in the decision did have one view in common. All said in their opinions that the Constitution protects, to some extent or another, published falsehoods concerning private individuals. While the dissenters would not adopt the knowing or reckless falsehood standard as applied to discussion of public issues, they did say the First Amendment protected nonnegligent falsehoods about private individuals in all libel cases, whether or not public issues were being discussed. And they would have greatly reduced the authority of the states to award

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