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Brief for the Petitioners

Summary Of Argument

I.

Under the doctrine of "libel per se" applied below, a public official is entitled to recover "presumed" and punitive damages for a publication found to be critical of the official conduct of a governmental agency under his general supervision if a jury thinks the publication "tends" to "injure" him "in his reputation" or to "bring" him "into public contempt" as an official. The publisher has no defense unless he can persuade the jury that the publication is entirely true in all its factual, material particulars. The doctrine not only dispenses with proof of injury by the complaining official, but presumes malice and falsity as well. Such a rule of liability works an abridgment of the freedom of the press.

The court below entirely misconceived the constitutional issues, in thinking them disposed of by the propositions that "the Constitution does not protect libelous publications" and that the "Fourteenth Amendment is directed against State action and not private action" (R. 1160). The requirements of the First Amendment are not satisfied by the "mere labels" of State law. N.A.A.C.P. v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 429 (1963); see also Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250, 263–264 (1952). The rule of law and the judgment challenged by petitioner are, of course, state action within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

If libel does not enjoy a talismanic insulation from the limitations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the principle of liability applied below infringes "these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form." Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 235 (1963). Whatever other ends are also served by freedom of the press, its safeguard "was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people." Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 484 (1957). It is clear that the political expression thus protected by the fundamental law is not delimited by any test of truth, to be administered by juries, courts, or by executive officials. N.A.A.C.P. v. Button, supra, at 445; Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 310(1940). It also is implicit in this Court's decisions that speech or publication which is critical of governmental or official action may not be repressed upon the ground that it diminishes the reputation of those officers whose conduct it deplores or of the government of which they are a part.

The closest analogy in the decided cases is provided by those dealing with contempt, where it is settled that concern for the dignity and reputation of the bench does not support the punishment of criticism of the judge or his decision, whether the utterance is true or false. Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 270 (1941); Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331, 342 (1946); Wood v. Georgia, 370 U.S. 375 (1962). Comparable criticism of an elected, political official cannot consistently be punished as a libel on the ground that it diminishes his reputation. If political criticism could be punished on the ground that it endangers the esteem with which its object is regarded, none safely could be uttered that was anything but praise.

That neither falsity nor tendency to harm official reputation, nor both in combination, justifies repression of the criticism of official conduct was the central lesson of the great assault on the short-lived Sedition Act of 1798, which the verdict of history has long deemed inconsistent with the First Amendment. The rule of liability applied below is even more repressive in its function and effect than that prescribed by the Sedition Act: it lacks the safeguards of criminal sanctions; it does not require proof that the defendant's purpose was to bring the official into contempt or disrepute; it permits, as this case illustrates, a multiplication of suits based on a single statement; it allows legally limitless awards of punitive damages. Moreover, reviving by judicial decision the worst aspect of the Sedition Act, the doctrine of this case forbids criticism of the government as such on the theory that top officers, though they are not named in statements attacking the official conduct of their agencies, are presumed to be hurt because such critiques are "attached to" them (R. 1157).

Assuming, without conceding, that the protection of official reputations is a valid interest of the State and that the Constitution allows room for the "accommodation" of that interest and the freedom of political expression, the rule applied below is still invalid. It reflects no compromise of the competing interests; that favored by the First Amendment has been totally rejected, the opposing interest totally preferred. If there is scope for the protection of official reputation against criticism of official conduct, measures of liability far less destructive of the freedom of expression are available and adequate to serve that end. It might be required, for example, that the official prove special damage, actual malice, or both. The Alabama rule embraces neither mitigation. Neither would allow a judgment for respondent on the evidence that he presents.

The foregoing arguments are fortified by the privilege the law of libel grants to an official if he denigrates a private individual. It would invert the scale of values vital to a free society if citizens discharging the "political duty" of "public discussion" (Brandeis, J., concurring in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 [1927]) did not enjoy a fair equivalent of the immunity granted to officials as a necessary incident of the performance of official duties.

Finally, respondent's argument that the publication is a "commercial advertisment," beyond the safeguard of the First Amendment, is entirely frivolous. The statement was a recital of grievances and protest against claimed abuse dealing squarely with the major issue of our time.

II.

Whether or not the rule of liability is valid on its face, its application in this case abridges freedom of the press. For nothing in the evidence supports a finding of the type of injury or threat to the respondent's reputation that conceivably might justify repression of the publication or give ground for the enormous judgment rendered on the verdict.

Complaining broadly against suppression of Negro rights throughout the South, the publication did not name respondent or the Commission of which he is a member and plainly was not meant as an attack on him or any other individual. Its protests and its targets were impersonal: "the police," "the state authorities," "the Southern violators." The finding that these collective generalities embodied an allusion to respondent's personal identity rests solely on the reference to "the police" and on his jurisdiction over that department. But the police consisted of too large a group for such a personal allusion to be found. The term "police" does not, in fact, mean all policemen. No more so does it mean the Mayor or Commissioner in charge. This fatal weakness in the claim that the respondent was referred to by the publication was not cured by his own testimony or that of his six witnesses; they did no more than express the opinion that "police" meant the respondent, because he is Commissioner in charge. These "mere general asseverations" (Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587, 595 [1935]) were not evidence of what the publication said or what it reasonably could be held to mean.

Even if the statements that refer to "the police" could validly be taken to refer to the respondent, there was nothing in those statements that suffices to support the judgment. Where the publication said that "truckloads" of armed police "ringed the Alabama State College Campus," the fact was that only "large numbers" of police "were deployed near the campus" upon three occasions, without ringing it on any. And where the statement said "They have arrested him seven times," the fact was that Dr. King had been arrested only four times. That these exaggerations or inaccuracies cannot rationally be regarded as tending to injure the respondent's reputation is entirely clear. The advertisement was also wrong in saying that when "the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission." Only a few students refused to re-register and the dining hall was never padlocked. But none of these erroneous assertions had a thing to do with the police and even less with the respondent. It was equally absurd for respondent to claim injury because the publication correctly reported that some unidentified "they" had twice bombed the home of Dr. King, and to insist on proving his innocence of that crime as the trial court permitted him to do.

That the respondent sustained no injury in fact from the publication, the record makes entirely clear.

Even if there were in this record a basis for considering the publication an offense to the respondent's reputation, there was no rational relationship between the gravity of the offense and the size of the penalty imposed. A "police measure may be unconstitutional merely because the remedy, although effective as means of protection, is unduly harsh or oppressive." Brandeis, J., concurring in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927). The proposition must apply with special force when the "harsh" remedy has been explicitly designed as a deterrent of expression. Upon this ground alone, this monstrous judgment is repugnant to the Constitution.

III.

The assumption of jurisdiction in this action by the Circuit Court, based on service of process on McKee and substituted service on the Secretary of State, transcended the territorial limits of due process, imposed a forbidden burden on interstate commerce and abridged the freedom of the press.

There was no basis for the holding by the courts below that petitioner forfeited these constitutional objections by making an involuntary general appearance in the cause. The finding of a general appearance was based solely on the fact that when petitioner appeared specially and moved to quash the attempted service for want of jurisdiction of its person, as permitted by the Alabama practice, the prayer for relief concluded with a further request for dismissal for "lack of jurisdiction of the subject matter of said action." That prayer did not manifest an intention to "consent" or to make "a voluntary submission to the jurisdiction of the court," which the Alabama cases have required to convert a special into a general appearance. Ex parte Cullinan, 224 Ala. 263, 266 (1931). The papers made entirely clear that the sole ruling sought by the petitioner was that it was not amenable to Alabama jurisdiction, as a New York corporation having no sufficient contact with the State to permit the assertion of jurisdiction in person-am in an action based upon a publication in New York.

Moreover, even if petitioner could validly be taken to have made an involuntary general appearance, that appearance would not bar the claim that in assuming jurisdiction of this action the state court imposed a forbidden burden on interstate commerce or that it abridged the freedom of the press. Davis v. Farmers Co-operative Co., 262 U.S. 312 (1923); Michigan Central R. R. Co. v. Mix, 278 U.S. 492, 496 (1929); Denver & R.G. W. R. Co. v. Terte, 284 U.S. 284, 287 (1932).

The decisions of this Court do not support the holding that the sporadic newsgathering activities of correspondents and stringers of The Times in Alabama, the occasional solicitation and publication of advertising from Alabama sources and the minuscule shipment of the newspaper to subscribers and newsdealers in the State constitute sufficient Alabama contacts to satisfy the requirements of due process.

The petitioner's peripheral relationship to Alabama does not involve "continuous corporate operations" which are "so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against it on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities." International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S. 310, 318 (1945); Perkins v. Benguet Mining Co., 342 U.S. 437(1952). Hence, if the jurisdiction is sustained, it must be on the ground that the cause of action alleged is so "connected with" petitioner's "activities within the state" as to "make it reasonable, in the context of our federal system of government, to require the corporation to defend the particular suit which is brought there." International Shoe Co. v. Washington, supra, at 319, 317. There is no such connection. Here, as in Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 252 (1958), the "suit cannot be said to be one to enforce an obligation that arose from a privilege the defendant exercised in" the State. The liability alleged is not based on any activity of correspondents or stringers of The Times in covering the news in Alabama; and such activity does not rest on a privilege the State confers, given the rights safeguarded by the Constitution. Nor is this claim connected with the occasional solicitation of advertisements in Alabama. Finally, the negligible circulation of The Times in Alabama does not involve an act of the petitioner within the State. Copies were mailed in New York to Alabama subscribers or shipped in New York to newsdealers who were purchasers, not agents of The Times.

Even if the shipment of the paper may be deemed an act of the petitioner in Alabama, it does not sustain the jurisdiction here affirmed. The standard of International Shoe is not "simply mechanical or quantitative"; its application "must depend rather upon the quality and nature of the activity in relation to the fair and orderly administration of the laws which it was the purpose of the due process clause to insure" (326 U.S. at 319). Measured by this standard, a principle which would require, in effect, that almost every newspaper defend a libel suit in almost any jurisdiction of the country, however trivial its circulation there may be, would not further the "fair and orderly administration of the laws". To the extent that this submission prefers the interest of the publisher to that of the plaintiff, the preference is one supported by the First Amendment. It also is supported by the fact that the plaintiff's grievance rests but fancifully on the insubstantial distribution of the publication in the forum, as distinguished from its major circulation out of state.

The decision in McGee v. International Life Ins. Co., 355 U.S. 220 (1957) does not govern the disposition here. The contract executed in McGee constituted a continuing legal relationship between the insurer and the insured within the State, a relationship which the States, with the concurrence of Congress, have long deemed to require special regulation. Hanson v. Denckla, supra, at 252; Travelers Health Assn. v. Virginia, 339 U.S. 643 (1950). Scripto v. Carson, 362 U.S. 207 (1960), relied on by respondent, is totally irrelevant to the problem of judicial jurisdiction.

The need for reciprocal restraints upon the power of the States to exert jurisdiction over men and institutions not within their borders is emphasized in our society by the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. An Alabama judgment in this case would have no practical importance were it not enforceable as such in States where the petitioner's resources are located. Thus jurisdictional delineations must be based on grounds that command general assent throughout the Union. No standard worthy of such general assent sustains the jurisdiction here.

If negligible state circulation of a paper published in another state suffices to establish jurisdiction of a suit for libel threatening the type of judgment rendered here, such distribution interstate cannot continue. So, too, if the interstate movement of correspondents provides a factor tending to sustain such jurisdiction, as the court below declared, a strong barrier to such movement has been erected. In the silence of Congress, such movement and distribution are protected by the commerce clause against burdensome state action, unsupported by an overriding local interest. Such a burden has been imposed here.

Newsgathering and circulation are both aspects of the freedom of the press, safeguarded by the Constitution. Neither can continue unimpaired if they subject the publisher to foreign jurisdiction on the grounds and of the scope asserted here. Accordingly, the jurisdictional determination is also repugnant to the First Amendment.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Brief for the Petitioners - On Writ Of Certiorari To The Supreme Court Of Alabamabrief For The Petitioner, Questions Presented, Statement