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Rosenblatt v. Baer

Significance

The ruling contributed to the Court's consideration of the question of libel, especially when the figures and events involved were public figures. The important question considered in this case was how much protection against defamation a public official could be granted, before that protection impeded freedom of speech.

Baer was employed by Belknap County in New Hampshire to supervise a recreation facility, mostly functioning as a ski resort; he reported to three elected commissioners. During the 1950s, the management and development of the area were publicly criticized. Some local observers argued that the Baer and the commissioners were not using the area in a way that exploited its full potential. In response to these criticisms, in 1959 control of the area was transferred to a special new commission, and Baer was replaced as supervisor.

Rosenblatt regularly wrote an unpaid column for the Laconia Evening News, in which he voiced his opinions about local politics, including criticism about the management of the recreation area. In one of his columns, approximately six months after the shift in management, Rosenblatt wrote in praise of the new management, which he claimed was producing results "literally hundreds of per cent BETTER than last year." In the same article, he posed the questions "What happened to all the money last year? and every other year?" Baer brought a civil libel case against Rosenblatt, and argued before a state court in New Hampshire that these statements implied mismanagement and even hinted at criminal behavior on his part, as supervisor of the area. The jury in the civil case awarded Baer damages, agreeing that he had been libeled by Rosenblatt

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling. The decision was based largely on New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) which the Court had recently decided. In that case, the Court found that states could not impede on freedoms of speech guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and that damages could only be awarded a public official if he or she could prove that criticisms of official conduct written made with "actual malice." The question of whether Baer was actually a public official did not have to be directly addressed by the Court in this case; he was employed by, and acting on behalf of, a governmental agency, and so could be considered a public official.

According to this precedent, then, the case before the Court had to address certain questions: whether Baer was actually a public official, whether the statements in question referred directly to Baer (although they did not mention his name), and whether Rosenblatt wrote with actual malice.

The determination of public official status had been addressed by the Court in New York Times v. Sullivan and Garrison v. Louisiana (1964).

Regarding the question of whether the statements referred directly to Baer, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the trial judge had been wrong to direct the jury that as member of a small group, Baer could be granted damages if the comments cast suspicion on all members of that group. When applied to governmental bodies, this proof is insufficient; Baer must prove that the comments were directed specifically at him. To apply the small group scenario to public officials, the Court stated, was to "invite the spectre of prosecutions for libel on government, which the Constitution does not tolerate in any form." For example, if a journalist criticized the actions of a town planning board, and any member of that board could bring a civil libel suit against the journalist, the freedom to criticize or question the official actions of public officials would be seriously limited. Instead, a public official must prove that allegations of misconduct are directed at him or her specifically.

The final question, that of whether Rosenblatt wrote with actual malice, also did not have to be directly addressed by the Court. Instead, the justices had only to look at the instructions the trial judge gave the jury in the state civil libel case to determine that the basis for the decision was incorrect, and the judgement had to be overturned. The trial judge explained malice as "ill will, evil motive, intention to injure . . . ;" but in a libel case involving public officials, actual malice must be proved: that the statements were false, and that they were published either with the knowledge that they were false, or with reckless disregard as to whether or not they were true. If these requirements proving malice did not exist, it would again be possible to limit the freedom to criticize the government with the threat of libel cases.

At the heart of this case is the tension between protecting the reputations of individuals against defamation, and the constitutional protection of freedom of speech and the freedom to criticize the actions of the government. In this case, as in the others it is based on, the Court limited the protection of individuals who are public officials, because "criticism of those responsible for government operations must be free, lest criticism of government itself be penalized." Ultimately, the Court decided, it is the freedom of speech granted in the First and Fourteenth Amendments which must be given priority. This ruling reflects "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open," a commitment that supersedes individual protections against libel.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Rosenblatt v. Baer - Significance