Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts

PETITIONER: Curtis Publishing Company
RESPONDENT: Wallace Butts
LOCATION: Legion Field

LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 388 US 130 (1967)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1967
DECIDED: Jun 12, 1967

Facts of the case

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) the Court held that public officials in libel cases must show that a statement was made "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." These two cases concern libel as it pertains to public figures who are not public officials. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts concerns an article published in the March 23, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post alleging that former University of Georgia football coach Wallace Butts conspired with University of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant to fix a 1962 football game in Alabama's favor. The article's source was George Burnett, an Atlanta insurance salesman who had allegedly overheard a telephone conversation between the coaches. Butts brought and won a libel suit against Curtis Publishing, owner of the periodical. Soon after the Court's ruling in New York Times, Curtis moved for a new trial. The trial judge rejected the argument because Butts was not a public official. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge's decision on the basis that Curtis had waived any constitutional challenges by not raising such questions at trial. Associated Press v. Walker concerns dispatch reports of rioting that occurred on the campus of the University of Mississippi on September 30, 1962. The dispatches, authored by a correspondent on the scene, reported that Edwin A. Walker, a private citizen and political activist, had personally led a violent crowd attempting to prevent federal marshals from enforcing the court-ordered enrollment of an African-American. Walker denied the report, and filed a libel suit in the state courts of Texas. A jury found in Walker's favor, but the judge in the case refused to award punitive damages, finding that there was no malicious intent. The judge also specifically noted that New York Times was inapplicable. On appeal, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals agreed. The Supreme Court of Texas declined to hear the case.


In light of the Court's ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, were the allegations made against Butts and Walker libelous?

Media for Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 1967 in Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts

Earl Warren:

Number 150, the Associated Press, Petitioner, versus Edwin A. Walker.

Mr. Rogers?

William P. Rogers:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This is a libel action in which General Edwin Walker has recovered a judgment of $500,000 against the Associated Press for general damages.

There was no claim made nor there was any evidence offered that he suffered any actual damages.

In addition to the $500,000 general damage as reward, the jury awarded $300,000 in punitive damages.

The trial court set aside this award on the ground that there was no malice.

The suit is based on news reports concerning Walker's activities in Oxford, Mississippi during the night of September 30, 1962, a night when violence and bloodshed climaxed in attempt by James Meredith, a Negro to enroll as a student at the University of Mississippi.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had ordered the admission of Mr. Meredith to the then all-white university.

But some of the highest elected officials in the State had asked that they would defy the order of the federal court and prevent Mr. Meredith's admission.

The Associated Press reported the events which followed.

The statements complained of in this case were contained in two news dispatches dated October 2nd and 3rd which originated with a local Associated Press reporter, who was on the campus at the time of the rioting and witnessed the events which he reported.

Those statements were: One, that General Walker assumed command of the crowd; and two, that he led a charge of students against the federal marshals who were there to see that the order of the Circuit Court was carried out.

A basic constitutional issue raised by this appeal before the document of New York Times against Sullivan is to be confined solely to public officials or whether it should be extended to persons like General Walker, who though not technically public officials, are public figures or persons of political prominence who have thrust themselves in the vortex of a question of pressing public concern.

Is this case been already tried before us -- before or after the term?

William P. Rogers:


After and what are the issues?

William P. Rogers:

The issue is presented squarely on this appeal.

The issue before the New York Times to be extended because all three Texas courts, the trial court and the appellate courts quite properly found that the statements were published without any malice as defined in the New York Times case.

Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, the Associated Press also claims that the news reports were substantially true and therefore the judgment represents an unconstitutional denial of due process.

That an award of $500,000 in general damages is unconstitutionally oppressive and that the defense of “fair comment” as applied in this case has been unconstitutionally limited.

This case, I believe, represents one of the most serious attacks ever made on the press in this country.

It is but one of the 50 libel cases brought by General Walker against the Associated Press, its members or both, arising out of news reports identical or almost identical with the one involved in this litigation.

William O. Douglas:

Is there a conflict as to what actually happened?

William P. Rogers:

Well, I don't think so.

I suppose counsel will.

The General has made claims -- I'll come to the conflict of testimony in just a moment, Your Honor.

The General has made claims against a significant portion of the press asking for damages totaling more than $33 million.

Hugo L. Black:

Has he won all of those suits?

William P. Rogers:

He's won the two that had been tried.