Inc. Gertz v. Robert Welch
In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the Court held that, except in a case of actual malice, the press enjoyed a constitutional protection against such liability if the defamed person was a public official. The Court reasoned that the common law burden of proof on the press would stifle free speech and discourage democratic debate. Decisions following New York Times, such as Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), extended this protection to media statements about public figures, as well as public officials. One outstanding question was whether the media were still protected if the object of defamation was a private individual.
This was the question before the Court in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia (1971). The decision in Rosenbloom did little to clarify a confusing issue. The Court announced a variety of opinions, reflecting a range of approaches to the New York Times precedent. The plurality, composed of Brennan, Burger, and Blackmun, concluded that the New York Times standard applied to the private individual, if the individual was involved in an event of public or general interest. Justice Black concurred, but on the grounds that the First Amendment granted the media absolute protection from liability. White also concurred, with yet another line of reasoning: Private individuals who were affected by or involved in official business of public servants were not protected.
Justice Harlan dissented. Private persons are less able to effectively, publicly rebut defamation. They have also not voluntarily exposed themselves to public scrutiny. Marshall wrote, in a dissent joined by Stewart, that the public or general interest test employed by the plurality would require that the Court decide "what information is relevant to self government." He also felt that the Court's decision did not sufficiently protect private persons from defamation. He concluded that that the states should be "essentially free to continue the evolution of the common law of defamation" using any standard other than strict liability.
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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Inc. Gertz v. Robert Welch - Defamation In Common Law, Precedent, Thegertz Case, A Balance, Gertz Not A Public Figure