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Hutchinson v. Proxmire

The Supreme Court Steps In

Next, the U.S. Supreme Court chose to hear the case. It hoped to resolve several key issues, the first of which it stated very clearly:

Whether a Member of Congress is protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution . . . against suits for allegedly defamatory statements made by a Member in press releases and newsletters.

The decision hinged on how the Court defined "legislative business":

Whatever imprecision there may be in the term "legislative activities," it is clear that nothing in the explicit language of the [Speech or Debate] Clause suggests any intention to create an absolute privilege from liability or suit for defamatory statements made outside the Chamber.

After deliberating, eight of the nine justices--with only Justice Brennan dissenting--held against Proxmire. They chose to define "legislative activity" narrowly, excluding things like newsletters and press releases:

Valuable and desirable as it may be in broad terms, the transmittal of such information by individual members in order to inform the public and other Members is not a part of the legislative function or the deliberations that make up the legislative process. As a result, transmittal of such information by press releases and newsletters is not protected by the Speech or Debate Clause.

The principle that press releases and newsletters are not a part of the legislative process had in fact been explicitly stated by the Court in an earlier case, United States v. Brewster. In that decision, the Court wrote:

It is well known, of course, that Members of the Congress engage in many activities other than the purely legislative activities protected by the Speech or Debate Clause. These include . . . preparing so-called "news letters" to constituents, news releases, and speeches delivered outside the Congress.

Finally, the Court addressed Senator Proxmire's contention that Ronald Hutchinson was a "public figure." If this were true, his libel claim would be invalid, because public figures can claim libel only when they are attacked by statements made with "actual malice" where the attacker knows that the claims are false. To be considered a public figure, Hutchinson would have to have regular and continuing access to the media or have thrust himself into the public spotlight. The Court found neither of these things to be true. Therefore, it held that Hutchinson was not a public figure and his claim of libel was valid.

Like Gravel v. United States, Hutchinson v. Proxmire provided important clarification on the breadth of the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution. It defined the nature of "legislative activities" more precisely than ever before and put clear limits on the speech protections afforded to members of Congress.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Hutchinson v. Proxmire - Significance, The District Court's Ruling, The Supreme Court Steps In, Speech Or Debate Clause