5 minute read

Inc. v. Firestone Time


The Court was agreed to accept the principles of the Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) verdict of two years earlier, which held that the nature of the person being allegedly defamed, rather than the nature of the issue which the defamation pertained to, would determine whether the plaintiff was a public figure and how much protection he or she was entitled to in matters of libel.

Russell Firestone, scion of a wealthy industrial family, married Mary Alice Firestone in 1961. The couple separated in 1964, and Mary Alice filed a complaint for separate maintenance. Russell countered with a suit for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery. The divorce was granted by a Florida Circuit Court judge, whose decision read in part:

According to certain testimony in behalf of the defendant, extramarital escapades of the plaintiff (Mary Alice) were bizarre and of an amatory nature which would have made Dr. Freud's hair curl. Other testimony, in plaintiff's behalf, would indicate that defendant (Russell) was guilty of bounding from one bedpartner to another with the erotic zest of a satyr. The court is inclined to discount much of this testimony as unreliable. Nevertheless, it is the conclusion and finding of the court that neither party is domesticated, within the meaning of that term as used by the Supreme Court of Florida . . . In the present case, it is abundantly clear from the evidence of marital discord that neither of the parties has shown the least susceptibility to domestication, and that the marriage should be dissolved.

The divorce had attracted a good deal of media attention in Palm Beach, and somewhat less in the national media, but Mary Alice did hold a number of press conferences during the course of the trial. Upon the announcement of the verdict, Time magazine ran a short announcement of the divorce in its "Milestones" department, saying that it was granted on the grounds for which it was sought: extreme cruelty and adultery. This was based on a newspaper account, a wire story, and information the magazine received from a stringer and a bureau chief. Mary Alice asked for a retraction, and when the magazine refused, she sued for libel, claiming the divorce was not stipulated on those points.

As is often the case with libel trials, there were several complicating points with the Firestone case. One was whether or not the divorce had, in fact, been granted on the grounds for which it was sought. The Florida Supreme Court called the report a "flagrant example of journalistic negligence," noting that there was no possible way the divorce could have been granted on grounds of adultery, because alimony was granted to Mary Alice, whereas alimony would not be granted under Florida law if a divorce was granted on those grounds. The divorce was granted, however, on the concept of "lack of domestication between the two parties," a concept that heretofore had no basis in Florida law and could have been considered a judicial error. Justice Powell in a concurring opinion and Justice Brennan in a dissent both entertained the idea that the divorce decree was worded ambiguously enough that an interpretation that the divorce was granted on the grounds of adultery was not wholly unreasonable. The Court decided, however, as the two Florida courts had before it, that Time's account was inaccurate.

Another question which the Court addressed was that of fault. Previous Supreme Court rulings had decreed that the media be given some room for understandable and honest mistakes, so that self-censorship not hamper the free communication of information and ideas. Florida law made no mention of fault being necessary for a finding of libel, and the state courts made no mention in their judgments, but freedom of the press being a constitutional issue, the federal criteria overrode the state rules. It was for this reason the case was remanded to the state courts for the matter of fault to be considered.

The issue of fault, however, was contingent upon the matter for which the case was most significant: the question of whether the allegedly libeled individual was a public figure or a private figure. The Court was fragmented in its evaluation of the Firestone case--it produced no fewer than five opinions among the eight justices hearing the case--but seven of the eight judges agreed on the answer to this question. Mary Alice Firestone was not a public figure, the Court decreed, and in so doing clarified a point with which it had been struggling for some years.

In 1964, with the New York Times v. Sullivan decision, the Supreme Court coined the concept of "actual malice." In what was seen as a victory for freedom of the press, the judgment held that for a libel case against a public official to be won, the offending party must print false and damaging information with the knowledge of the information's falsity, or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or not. This gave leeway to the press, so that it does not need to constantly second-guess itself for fear of being sued for an honest mistake, but the decision did not explicitly address the question of when these rules would apply, based on the status of the litigants as public or private figures.

In 1967 the Court expanded the New York Times rule to cover public figures, such as celebrities or political activists, who were not public officials. In 1974 with the Gertz case the Court did some important fine-tuning of these criteria. It decided that individuals who were well-known enough to have access to the media, and thus the ability to correct erroneous reports adequately, would have to prove actual malice, as would individuals who deliberately thrust themselves into the public eye to influence some public issue. This moved the Court away from a trend in which it was trying to apply the actual malice rules depending on whether a libel case involved a "public issue," hence the shifting of the focus from the issue to the individual. The Gertz decision found the Court heavily split, however, and created some doubt as to how future cases would be decided.

The Firestone decision, then, unified the Court on this point. The actual malice standard must be met for plaintiffs to receive damages if they are deemed public figures, whereas private individuals may receive damages with merely a finding of fault. Firestone was a major step toward clarifying an issue the Court had been wrestling with for a long time.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Inc. v. Firestone Time - Significance