Barr v. Matteo

PETITIONER: William G. Barr
RESPONDENT: Linda A. Matteo and John J. Madigan
LOCATION: United States Senate

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 360 US 564 (1959)
ARGUED: Apr 20, 1959
DECIDED: Jun 29, 1959
GRANTED: Dec 15, 1958

Byron N. Scott - for the respondent
Daniel M. Friedman - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Linda Matteo and John Madigan created a plan for utilizing $2.6 million in funds from the Office of Housing Expediter. The Office’s commission was coming to an end, and the plan involved firing and rehiring employees on a temporary basis until the life of the Office was extended or ended. William G. Barr, general manager of the Office, vehemently opposed the plan, and several Senators attacked the plan on the Senate floor. Barr decided to suspend Matteo and Madigan. He issued a press release explaining his reasons. Matteo and Madigan sued for libel based on the statements in the press release.

In certain circumstances, government officials are protected from civil suits for actions done in the scope of their official duties though absolute or qualified privilege. The district court ruled in favor of Matteo and Madigan, rejecting Barr’s claim that his statements were protected by privilege. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, considering only absolute privilege. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated and remanded so the court of appeals could consider qualified privilege. On remand, the court of appeals held that qualified privilege existed, but was defeated due to Barr’s malice. The court remanded the case to district court for a new trial.


Does the absolute privilege granted to government officials for acts done in the scope of their official authority extend to statements to the press about matters under their supervision?

Media for Barr v. Matteo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 20, 1959 in Barr v. Matteo

Earl Warren:

50, William G. Barr, Petitioner, versus Linda (Inaudible) John J. Madigan.

Mr. Friedman, you may proceed.

Daniel M. Friedman:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

The basic issue presented by this case and by the case which immediately follows it is whether government executive officials below the rank of cabinet officer have an absolute immunity for alleged defamatory statements made in the course of their official duties relating to matters over which they have supervision and control.

In this case, the alleged libel consisted of a press release issued by the head of an independent agency.

In the case which follows it, it involved the transmission by a high naval official, two members of Congress, of copies of a report which he had made to his superiors in the course of his official duties.

In each case, the Court of Appeals by a divided court, held that the defamatory statement was not absolutely privileged but only subjected to a qualified privilege.

That is a privilege, which could be -- could be lost by showing that the statement was malicious or that it went beyond what was necessary under the circumstances.

Now, prior to discussing the facts in this case, I'd like to indicate briefly to the Court the policy considerations which underlie the rule of absolute immunity.

I believe that is important because when you deal with a case of this type, one might tend to instinctively react and say, “Well, if a government official maliciously defamed someone, why shouldn't he be held responsible in damages?”

And I think the answer to that was put most eloquently by Judge Learned Hand in the celebrated case of Gregoire against Biddle in which he held there was an absolute privilege governing the performance of official duties by the judicial officers of the Government in a proceeding involving an alleged improper retention in custody of an enemy alien.

That is not a libel case?

Daniel M. Friedman:

No, Mr. Justice, but we believe that the principles that are involved are equally applicable.

Now, I'd like us to read briefly two or three sentences to the court in Judge Hand's opinion.

He starts by saying, “It does indeed go without saying that an official, who is in fact guilty of using his powers to vent his spleen upon others, or for any other personal motive not connected with the public good, should not escape liability for the injuries he may so cause.

And, if it were possible in practice to confine such complaints to the guilty, it would be monstrous to deny recovery.

The justification for doing so is that it is impossible to know whether the claim is well founded until the case has been tried, and that to submit all officials, the innocent as well as the guilty, to the burden of a trial and to the inevitable danger of its outcome, would dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible, in the unflinching discharge of their duties.

Again and again the public interest calls for action which may turn out to be founded on a mistake, in the face of which an official may later find himself hard put to it to satisfy a jury of his good faith.”

And then Judge Hand concludes this, says, “As is so often the case, the answer must be found in a balance between the evils inevitable in either alternative.

In this instance it has been thought in the end better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation."

In other words, this policy that is sort to be protected by the doctrine of absolute privilege is a recognition that public officials may be hesitant to do their duty freely and resolutely if they know that at some future date, they may be required to come before a jury and satisfy the jury of their good faith.

That they acted properly.

That they did not exceed what was necessary under the circumstances.

It's very easy in one of these cases and it's true in most of these defamation cases for the plaintiff to allege that the defendant did this maliciously.

That he did it with the intention to injure the plaintiff.

This puts the government official in the position of having to be certain that at some future date, he will be able to satisfy the jury of his good faith.

Now, if that is the rule and that is the rule in effect of qualified privilege, what this means as Judge Hand pointed out is that if you've got a case where even though the public interest would call for government action, an official will be reluctant to act.

He will be reluctant to act because at some future date, he may find it necessary to litigate, two years hence, one year hence, the bona fides of which he acted.

Now, we think this consideration is particularly important in the area involved in these cases which is the furnishing of information to the public.

Today, the issuance of press releases is a vital and necessary part of the language our Government operates.