Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc.

PETITIONER: Gertz
RESPONDENT: Robert Welch Inc.
LOCATION: Robert Welch Inc.

DOCKET NO.: 72-617
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 418 US 323 (1974)
ARGUED: Nov 14, 1973
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1974

ADVOCATES:
Clyde J. Watts - Argued the cause for the respondent
Wayne B. Giampietro - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Gertz was an attorney hired by a family to sue a police officer who had killed the family's son. In a magazine called American Opinion, the John Birch Society accused Gertz of being a "Leninist" and a "Communist-fronter" because he chose to represent clients who were suing a law enforcement officer. Gertz won a jury verdict and an award of $50,000 but lost his libel suit because the trial judge found that the magazine had not violated the actual malice test for libel which the Supreme Court had established in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial judge's ruling.

Question

Does the First Amendment allow a newspaper or broadcaster to assert defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is neither a public official nor a public figure?

Media for Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 1974 in Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

The disposition in number 72-617, Gertz against Welch will be announced by Mr. Justice Powell.

Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

It involves a libel action by a reputable attorney against a magazine that’s falsely libeled him of Leninist and a communist fronter.

The district court denying recovery, held that the subject of the magazine article was a matter of public interest.

The court therefore applied the strict standard of New York Times against Sullivan, a case decided here in 1964.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In the New York Times case, this Court held for the first time that where a public official was a plaintiff in a libel case, it was necessary for him to prove knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth.

The New York Times standard subsequently was extended to apply it to public figures as well as public officials.

The rationale of this line of cases is grounded of course in the First Amendment.

We decline today to extend New York Times to a case where neither a public official nor a public figure is a plaintiff, merely because the publication is thought to be a matter of public interest.

We recognize the state’s interest in protecting the reputation of private individuals must be balanced against the First Amendment interest.

Accordingly we hold that the states may allow compensatory damages, for libel which causes injury to the reputation of private individuals without applying the strict New York Times test.

But we would not approve the imposition of liability without fault as we think this would unduly burden a free press.

Thus with regard to libel suits by private individuals, the states will be free to apply any standard which does not impose liability without fault, such as of negligence standard.

Accordingly we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for a new trial.

Mr. Justice Blackmun has filed a concurring opinion.

The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Douglas, Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice White each has filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Powell.