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Rosenbloom v. Metromedia - Significance

public obscene police station

News about an individual who is not a public official or public figure, but was of interest to the general public falls under New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which means evidence of a reckless disregard for the truth or malicious intent has to be proven for libel.

In the fall of 1963, George Rosenbloom, a distributor of nudist magazines in the Philadelphia area, was arrested as part of a crackdown on obscene materials. He was released on bail. Three days later, on 4 October, police searched Rosenbloom's home and a barn he used as a warehouse after obtaining a warrant. Magazines and books were seized by the police. Rosenblum surrendered to police, and was arrested yet again.

After the second arrest, the police captain informed two radio stations, a wire service and the local newspaper about the raid on Rosenblum's home and his arrest. Radio station, WIP, which Metromedia owned, broadcast the following story twice:

The Special Investigations Squad raided the home of George Rosenbloom in the 1800 block of Vesta Street this afternoon. Police confiscated 1,000 allegedly obscene books at Rosenbloom's home and arrested him on charges of possession of obscene literature. The Special Investigations Squad also raided a barn in the 20 Hundred block of Welsh Road near Bustleton Avenue and confiscated 3,000 obscene books. Capt. Ferguson says he believes they have hit the supply of main distributor of obscene material in Philadelphia.
On the third report, "reportedly" was added before obscene. The information was repeated several times, but also with "allegedly" or "reportedly" before obscene.

Two weeks later, Rosenbloom sued city and police officials and several local media outlets claiming that the materials he distributed were not obscene. He sought to stop the police from interfering in his business and to end the publicity. WIP then reported on the lawsuit. After being informed of the news reports, Rosenbloom visited the radio station. Rosenbloom spoke with a part-time newscaster at the station over a telephone in the lobby and told him that his materials were not obscene. Rosenbloom informed the newscaster that his magazines were "found to be completely legal and legitimate by the U.S. Supreme Court." The newscaster said that the district attorney described the magazines as obscene. Rosenbloom said he had a statement from the same district attorney calling the magazines legal. Rosenbloom said the newscaster ended the conversation by hanging up the telephone. Rosenbloom, however, did not request a retraction or a correction.

In May of 1964, Rosenbloom was acquitted of criminal obscenity charges by a state court jury. After his acquittal, Rosenbloom sued for libel in federal court. He said that his acquittal on criminal charges proved that he was libeled. He said that broadcasts about his lawsuit for injunctive relief were false and defamatory because the radio station described him and his associates as "smut distributors" and "girlie-book peddlers," among other defamatory language. The radio station used truth and privilege as a defense. The station's news director testified that the only source for these reports was the police captain, who then testified that the information was accurately reported.

The jury was instructed that under Pennsylvania law four conditions had to be met to prove libel: at least one of the broadcasts had to be defamatory, that a reasonable listener would conclude that the statements were about Rosenbloom; that the radio station "had forfeited its privilege to report official proceedings fairly and accurately, either because it intended to injure the plaintiff personally or because it exercised the privilege unreasonably and without reasonable care;" and finally, that the reporting was false. The jury was also told that Rosenbloom had to prove the first three, but the radio station had to prove that the reporting was true. The jury awarded Rosenbloom $25,000 in general damages and $725,000 in punitive damages. The award was reduced to $250,000 by the district court. The court of appeals reversed reasoning that the reports were breaking news and of interest to the public, and while Rosenbloom was not a public official or public figure that New York Times v. Sullivan was applicable.

In upholding the appeals court ruling, Justice Brennan explained that if a news item is of public or general interest it does not lose its news value because a private individual is involved. The priority is not whether an individual is well-known, but if the information is of interest and importance to the community. "We honor the commitment to robust debate on public issues, which is embodied in the First Amendment, by extending constitutional protection to all discussion and communication involving matters of public or general concern, without regard to whether the persons involved are famous or anonymous," Brennan wrote. Rosenbloom argued that the private individual does not have the resources available to him to counter an inaccurate or defamatory report. Additionally, he claimed that unlike the public figure, the private individual had not thrust himself into the spotlight. Brennan believed however, that even a public figure was at a disadvantage to counter or rebut a defamatory report because it was not breaking news and undoubtedly would not receive the same coverage as the initial report. Brennan further reasoned that in a free society no one is truly a private person. "The idea that certain public figures have voluntarily exposed their entire lives to public inspection, while private individuals have kept theirs carefully shrouded from public view is, as best, a legal fiction."

In a separate opinion, Justice Black agreed with the majority's decision, but would have taken it a step further. He believed that under the First Amendment no one can recover libel judgments against the media, even if the media outlet is aware that the statements are false. Black believed that the purpose of the First Amendment was to protect the media from "the harassment of libel judgments." Justice White, concurred in judgment, but disagreed with the other justices in their reasoning because it infringed too greatly on state libel laws. White reasoned that it would make little sense to report on the actions of the police without providing details to the public about whom and why the arrests were made. He felt that New York Times v. Sullivan, not only protected the media when they criticized public officials or figures, but when they praised them as well.

In separate dissenting opinions, Justice Harlan and Marshall disagreed with extending the New York Times v. Sullivan protection to private individuals. Justice Marshall, joined by Justice Stewart, believed that trying to determine what is of general interest to the public is problematic. "Courts, including this one, are not anointed with any extraordinary prescience." Additionally, Marshall predicted that since the courts will have to balance the individual's rights against defamation against the rights of a free press that courts would regularly be engaged in "a constant and continuing supervision of defamation litigation throughout the country."

Rosenbloom v. Metromedia - Impact [next]

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