Gertz v. Robert Welch Case Brief

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 Leninistand a Communist-fronterbecause 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.

Why is the case important?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the Petitioner, Elmer Gertz (Petitioner), was a public figure and that the New York Times standard applied in his defamation action. Accordingly, the court of appeals affirmed the district court’s grant of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the Respondent publisher, Robert Welch Inc. (Respondent). The Petitioner attorney sought review.

Question

Does the standard enunciated in New York Times v. Sullivan requiring a plaintiff to establish actual malice to successfully bring a defamation suit against a public figure extend to private individuals?

ANSWER

No. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) reversed and remanded. Because the Petitioner was not a public figure, the state’s interest in compensating injury to his reputation required a different standard from that formulated in New York Times. The Supreme Court held further that the states could define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injuries to a private individual.

CONCLUSION

The Court held that the states could define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injuries to a private individual. The states could not permit recovery of presumed or punitive damages absent a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

  • Advocates: Wayne B. Giampietro Argued the cause for the petitioner Clyde J. Watts Argued the cause for the respondent
  • Petitioner: Gertz
  • Respondent: Robert Welch Inc.
  • DECIDED BY:Burger Court
  • Location: Robert Welch Inc.
Citation: 418 US 323 (1974)
Argued: Nov 14, 1973
Decided: Jun 25, 1974
Gertz v. Robert Welch Case Brief