The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

9 A Constitutional Accommodation
Libel Recovery Clearly Is Not Foreclosed

Though the Supreme Court between 1964 and 1974 had greatly limited the conditions under which all people could obtain redress for defamatory falsehoods, it had not granted a license for unlimited libelous discussion. What had been granted were constitutional privileges to speak or publish only nonknowing or nonreckless defamatory falsehoods about public officials and public figures and only nonnegligent defamatory falsehoods about private individuals. Obviously these privileges could be defeated by proof of knowing, reckless, or negligent falsehoods. There was, then, no freedom for unlimited libelous discussion. The Court simply had made a constitutional accommodation between freedom of speech and press, on the one hand, and the right of individuals to maintain good reputations, on the other. Room was left by this accommodation to allow damage awards to those injured by libelous falsehoods not protected by the Constitution. And as the decade of the 1970s closed out, the Court made this quite clear by issuing several decisions emphasizing that the rights of those filing libel suits would be protected.

The first of these decisions came nearly two years after the private-person rule of libel had been established in Gertz v. Welch. It was in the case of Time, Inc., v. Firestone, decided on 2 March 1976. Here the Court in a 5-3 opinion said, in effect, that wealthy, socially prominent people--even if they had frequent media attention--were not to be considered public figures for purposes of libel suits unless they had assumed special prominence in the resolution of public questions. Nor could they be termed public figures by being compelled to go to court, even if their trials were highly publicized and they had several press conferences concerning

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