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Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts

Two Cases Of Libel?

After an article published in the Saturday Evening Post accused Wally Butts of attempting to fix a football game in 1962 between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama he sued Curtis Publishing Company for libel. When the article was published, Butts was the athletic director and formerly the coach of the University of Georgia's football team. He was a well-known figure within the coaching ranks, and was up for a job with a professional football team.

The primary source for the article was George Burnett, an Atlanta insurance salesman. Burnett had accidentally overhead a telephone conversation, a week before the football game, between Butts and the coach of Alabama's football team, Paul Bryant. Burnett made notes of the conversation during which Butts revealed Georgia's game plans even naming specific players and plays. Butts sued for libel and sought $5 million in compensatory and $5 million in punitive damages. The trial was finished before the Court ruled in the New York Times v. Sullivan. Curtis's only defense was truth.

The trial focused on whether the article was true and the accuracy of the reporting. Burnett overheard a conversation between Butts and Bryant; however what he heard was a matter of debate. Butts claimed the conversation was confined to general football talk and would have yielded little useful information to any opposing coach. In preparation of the article it was revealed that the magazine had "departed greatly from the standards of good investigation and reporting." The jury returned a verdict for $60,000 in general damages and $3 million in punitive damages. The trial court reduced the award to $460,000. A short time later, the Court announced the Sullivan decision and Curtis motioned for a new trial. The trial court rejected the motion on two grounds. First, it held that New York Times was not applicable because Butts was not a public official; and second, there was plenty of evidence for the jury to have concluded that there was a reckless disregard for the truth. Curtis appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, but the judgment was affirmed. A rehearing was denied and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

A second case in which the press used the accuracy of their reporting as a defense was Associated Press v. Walker. The case resullted from a press report on a riot that resulted in James Meredith, a black student, trying integrate the University of Mississippi under a court decree. The report accused retired general Edwin Walker of leading a charge against the federal marshals and described Walker as encouraging the use of violence and even advising the rioters on how to avoid the harmful side effects of tear gas. Walker was a private citizen at the time of the riot and press report. He had a long and distinguished career in the U.S. Army and had been in command of general troops during the school confrontation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Walker resigned his army post to become more politically active and had received some publicity over his views on integration. He sued for libel in the state courts of Texas seeking $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Associated Press used both the accuracy of its report as well as constitutional defenses. Walker disputed the facts in the wire story. He said he was indeed on the campus, but that he had tried to keep the crowd from rioting and urged them to remain peaceful. He denied taking part in the charge against federal marshals. The reporter was at the riot. There was no evidence suggesting that the article was not prepared properly or any personal prejudice or incompetence on the part of the reporter or Associated Press.

The jury was told that it could award compensatory damages if the article was false and that punitive damages could be awarded if the report was motivated by "ill will, bad or evil motive, or that entire want of care which would raise the belief that the act or omission complained of was the result of a conscious indifference to the right or welfare of the person to be affected by it." The jury returned a verdict of $500,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge found no evidence of actual malice and refused to enter the punitive award. The trial judge said that the lack of malice would require a verdict for the Associated Press, if New York Times was applicable, but he concluded that it was not applicable since there were "no compelling reasons of public policy requiring additional defenses to suits for libel. Truth alone should be an adequate defense." Both sides appealed, and the Texas Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the compensatory damages and the dismissal of punitive damages. The Supreme Court of Texas denied writ of error and the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court decided to extend the New York Times ruling to public figures, but was sharply divided in its reasoning. The majority, after determining that both Butts and Walker were public figures, reasoned that as public figures they could recover damages once it was proven that the standards of traditional reporting were not followed. They found that standard was satisfied in Butts, but not in Walker. The Court further reasoned that unlike the case of Walker, there was no breaking news involved in the case of Butts, which meant that the Saturday Evening Post had plenty of time to verify the facts in the article. Even with the lack of time constraints, the Court concluded that the reporting of the Butts story was sloppy. In fact, the Saturday Evening Post was aware that Burnett was on probation for writing bad checks, but published the story without corroborating it. No other magazine personnel reviewed Burnett's notes before publication, and the individual supposedly with Burnett when he overheard the phone call was not interviewed. The writer assigned to the story was not a football expert and no attempt was made to have an expert review the story before publication. "In short, the evidence is ample to support a finding of highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers."

Justice Warren, in a separate opinion agreeing with result but disagreeing with the reasoning, placed more emphasis on the status of both Walker and Butts as public figures and reasoned that should be the major thrust behind the Court's ruling. The majority opinion recognized this distinction, but focused more on the quality of reporting and whether it substantially deviated from acceptable journalistic practices. "To me, differentiation between `public figures' and `public officials' and adoption of separate standards of proof for each have no basis in law, logic, or First Amendment policy. Increasingly in this country, the distinctions between governmental and private sectors are blurred," Warren wrote. Under the Times rule it was clear that Walker had not proven malice, and that the Butts case showed a "degree of reckless disregard for the truth."

Justice Black joined by Justice Douglas wrote yet another opinion agreeing with the result in Walker, but dissenting with the majority in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts. Urging a broader press immunity, he argued that Sullivan failed to adequately protect the press from libel judgments. He would have reversed the Butts ruling because the article was a matter of public interest. Justice Brennan joined by Justice White agreed with Walker, but dissented in Butts. Brennan reasoned that the jury instructions did not follow the standard for malice and therefore the ruling should be reversed and remanded for a new trial. He further reasoned that the jury should have an opportunity to determine if the New York Times standard was met.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts - Two Cases Of Libel?, Impact