Monday, February 25, 2013

Defamation, Public Figures and the First Amendment - Part I

Photo Credit, see below *
When a writer or broadcaster, or a lawyer representing them, faces a defamation claim, one of the first issues to be determined is whether the person claiming to be defamed is a public figure or a private person.

The critical importance of this determination is due to the different legal standard applied to public figures and private persons.  This distinction is mandated by the First Amendment through the key U.S. Supreme Court cases of New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) and Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967).

The New York Times case involved a suit by a City Commissioner in charge of the Montgomery, Alabama Police Department.  The suit against the Times was for an editorial advertisement run in the newspaper by a civil rights group.  

This became the first Supreme Court decision holding that the First Amendment placed limitations on liability for defamation.  The Court held that in a vibrant democracy, the First Amendment requires "breathing room" in order to encourage robust public debate.  This "breathing room" requires that not every inaccurate or false statement about a public official leads to liability in the courts.  

The rule that came out of the case is that to find liability, the court must find that the false statement was made with malice.  But malice in this context does not mean ill will.  Instead it means with "knowledge or reckless disregard of the falsity of the statement." 

Three years after the New York Times case, the Court in Curtis Publishing expanded the First Amendment standard of constitutional malice to cases involving public figures.  The Curtis Publishing decision actually involved the consolidation of two cases - and with two different results.  Wally Butts was the athletic director at the University of Georgia, and he was accused in a Saturday Evening Post article by of fixing the 1962 football game between Georgia and arch-rival Alabama.  

The Court also consolidated the case of Associated Press v. Walker, where former General Edwin Walker sued for accusations that he incited a crowd to riot over the enrollment of James Meridith as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.  

In deciding these cases, the Court held that the same constitutional standard that applied to public officials also applied to public figures.  In applying the facts to this standard, the court ruled 5-4 that there was sufficient evidence in the Butts case to meet this standard, and affirmed the libel judgment for Butts.  In the Walker case, the court held 9-0 that Walker's evidence failed to meet this constitutionally required standard.

Photo credit, see below **
Footnote to history:  Walker was a racist, fervent anti-communist and a right-wing reactionary whose diatribes inflamed the passions of the South. In his hometown of Dallas, a mentally unstable leftist loner saw Walker on television and likewise had his passions inflamed In April, 1963,  after stalking Walker for weeks, this lone gunman sat in wait outside Walker's house with his mail-order Carcano rifle with a scope.  When Walker appeared, he fired a single shot from about 100 feet away. The wooden frame of the window slightly deflected the shot, saving Walker's life.  Walker was hit with splinters, but the bullet narrowly missed.

Seven months later, on November 22, 1963,  that same disturbed gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, used that same Carcano mail-order rifle and assassinated President John F. Kennedy. 

photo credit: <a href="">Jason L. Parks</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a> 

**photo credit: <a href="">Jesse757</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a> 

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