Hutchinson v. Proxmire

PETITIONER: Hutchinson
LOCATION: Congress

DOCKET NO.: 78-680
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 443 US 111 (1979)
ARGUED: Apr 17, 1979
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1979

Alan Raywid - Argued the cause for the respondents
Michael E. Cavanaugh - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In early 1975, Senator William Proxmire implemented what he called the "Golden Fleece Award of the Month." The award was given out to governmental agencies which sponsored programs and research that Proxmire found to be a waste of tax dollars. One Golden Fleece went to federal agencies sponsoring the research of Ronald Hutchinson, a behavioral scientist. Proxmire detailed the "nonsense" of Hutchinson's research on the floor of the Senate, in conferences with his staff, and in a newsletter sent to over 100,000 of his constituents. Hutchinson sued for libel, arguing that Proxmire's statements defamed his character and caused him to endure financial loss.


Were Proxmire's activities and statements against Hutchinson's research protected by the Speech and Debate Clause of Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution?

Media for Hutchinson v. Proxmire

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 17, 1979 in Hutchinson v. Proxmire

Warren E. Burger:

-- Mr. Justice White.

We'll hear arguments first this morning in Hutchinson against Proxmire and others.

Mr. Cavanaugh, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Michael E. Cavanaugh:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

I am Michael Cavanaugh of Lansing, Michigan appearing on behalf of the respondent -- excuse me, the petitioner, Dr. Ronald Hutchinson.

This is a civil action by Dr. Hutchinson, a research scientist against the United States Senator William Proxmire and his aide Morton Schwartz, seeking damages for libel, slander, interference with contractual relations and invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of mental anguish.

The basis of federal jurisdiction is diversity of citizenship.

In March of 1975, Senator Proxmire launched a series of monthly press releases which were designed according to Senator Proxmire to focus national attention upon what he considered as the greatest waste of taxpayer money that could be located that month.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Cavanaugh, can I interrupt you for a moment?

Michael E. Cavanaugh:

Yes, sir.

William H. Rehnquist:

You said the basis of jurisdiction is diversity of citizenship.

I take it then that it's state law of some state that forms the substantive basis for your claim of libel and slander?

Michael E. Cavanaugh:

Yes, Your Honor, ultimately state law will be applied.

William H. Rehnquist:

In what state, Wisconsin?

Michael E. Cavanaugh:

Your Honor, there are three possible choices, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, and the State of Michigan.

We believe that the appropriate state law to be applied would be the State of Michigan.

The petitioner resides in the State of Michigan.

The publication was nationwide but the greatest impact would be in the State of Michigan, and we think that under the Wisconsin choice of law provisions they would look to the impact of the tort and that Michigan law would be applied.

William H. Rehnquist:

But it would be a question of Wisconsin choice of law then?

Michael E. Cavanaugh:

That is correct, Your Honor.

It is our contention Your Honors that a review of the press releases issued by Senator Proxmire that are contained in this record along with the evidence that relates to them will show that the press releases typically will take a small part of a research project, distort it and then indicate that the full amount of the research grant was granted for that project.

The press releases are typically filled with sarcasm and humiliate the researcher involved.

In April of 1975, Dr. Hutchinson was selected for the “Golden Fleece of the Month Award.”

The Golden Fleece issued for Dr. Hutchinson contained defamatory and untrue statements.

The following statements among others were made.

The Government paid one half million dollars to find out that anger, stopping smoking and loud noises produce jaw clenching.

All this money was given to Dr. Hutchinson of Kalamazoo State Hospital.

In fact, the good doctor has made a fortune from his monkeys and in the process made a monkey of the American taxpayer.

The press release also stated that Dr. Hutchinson's research work was perhaps duplicative.

In the course of the depositions, the respondents have admitted that prior to issuance of the press release they knew that the $500,000.00 did not go to Dr. Hutchinson personally, but rather was paid to the State of Michigan and used by the State of Michigan to pay salaries, to pay for supplies, overhead and similar expenses.