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Inc. Gertz v. Robert Welch

Thegertz Case

It was in this confused legal context that Elmer Gertz brought his suit. Gertz, a lawyer, had represented the family of a murder victim in civil litigation against the murderer, a Chicago policeman named Richard Nuccio. The respondent's magazine, American Opinion, then printed a story titled "FRAME-UP: Richard Nuccio and The War On Police." The story alleged that Gertz was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the police, in order to clear the way for a communist dictatorship. The article presented several falsehoods: that Gertz had a police file, that he was involved in Marxist organizations, that he was a Leninist. The managing editor of the magazine did not fact-check the article.

Gertz sued for libel in district court. Robert Welch, Inc., first moved to dismiss the complaint, as it did not make a specific claim for damages. The court ruled that Gertz need not claim special damages as the case involved libel per se. The respondent then filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that Gertz was a public figure and that the article involved a matter of public concern. The district court dismissed the motion for summary judgment, but apparently agreed with the respondent that the New York Times standard applied for the reasons given. The burden was therefore on Gertz to show that the respondent had acted with actual malice.

In the trial, the court decided that because Gertz was not a public figure, the respondent was not protected, despite the fact that the article was on a matter of public interest. But after a jury awarded $50,000 to Gertz, the court reconsidered and ruled for the respondent, deciding that discussion of public speech was indeed protected.

The court of appeals, to which Gertz turned next, considered Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc. (1971), a precedent for protecting any media presentation of a matter of public interest, not just those involving public figures. Because Gertz failed to present any evidence of actual malice, the court upheld the district court's ruling. The case then proceeded to the Supreme Court.

Additional topics

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