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Inc. Gertz v. Robert Welch

A Balance

The Court faced the same general problem here as in Rosenbloom: how to strike a balance between freedom of speech and of the press, on one hand, and the rights of the individual, on the other. Justice Powell, writing for the majority, laid out the dangers:

Although the erroneous statement of fact is not worthy of constitutional protection, it is nevertheless inevitable in free debate . . . And the punishment of error runs the risk of inducing a cautious and restrictive exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and press . . . Allowing the media to avoid liability only by proving the truth of all injurious statements does not accord adequate protection to First Amendment liberties.
On the other hand, the state does have an interest in protecting the individual from wrongful injury by the press.

Rejecting the possibility that courts proceed on a case-by-case basis, the Court laid out some guidelines. Echoing Harlan in his Rosenbloom dissent, the Court noted that 1) private individuals cannot so easily rebut defamatory statements and 2) they have not voluntarily put themselves in the public eye, and thus do not willingly assume the risk of defamation. Therefore, "private individuals are not only more vulnerable to injury than public officials and public figures; they are also more deserving of recovery."

The Court repudiated Rosenbloom's "public or general interest" test, claiming that it did not serve either side of the dispute. It did not adequately protect private individuals, but neither did it protect the media in cases in which the subject matter was not considered to be of public interest. And, again recalling a dissent in Rosenbloom, the Court noted Marshall's warning that the courts should not decide what information people need to govern themselves.

The Court left it to the states to define an appropriate standard of liability, as long as it was not strict liability. States might award damages in the absence of actual malice, but the Court set a limit: In cases using a standard less stringent than New York Times, plaintiffs could recover compensation only for actual injury. Juries would not be permitted to award punitive damages.

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