Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

RESPONDENT:New Yorker Magazine, Inc.
LOCATION: New Yorker Magazine

DOCKET NO.: 89-1799
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 501 US 496 (1991)
ARGUED: Jan 14, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 20, 1991

Charles Morgan, Jr. – on behalf of the Petitioner
H. Bartow Farr, III – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

After Jeffrey Masson was fired from his position at the Sigmund Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm interviewed him for an article in the New Yorker magazine. Malcolm_s article included many long direct quotations from Masson. The article presented Masson as extremely arrogant and condescending; at one point, he was quoted as calling himself “the greatest analyst who ever lived.” However, Malcolm fabricated many of the more distasteful quotations. Masson sued for libel. The District Court dismissed the case on First Amendment free speech grounds because Masson was a public figure.


Does the First Amendment give the New Yorker a right to publish fabricated quotations attributed to a public figure?

Media for Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 14, 1991 in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 20, 1991 in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 89-1799, Masson against New Yorker Magazine will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case, Masson versus New Yorker Magazine comes before us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Jeffrey Masson was a scholar who turned to the study of psychoanalysis.

He became project’s director on the staff of the Sigmund Freud Archives.

Disagreements arose and he was terminated.

Masson’s own story and the whole background of the dispute were of sufficient interest to Janet Malcolm, an author, that she wrote an article about Masson and about the Archives.

She wrote the article after a series of interviews with Masson, many of which were tape recorded.

The article was published first as a series in the New Yorker Magazine, and then as a book.

Her work received complimentary reviews, and this gave little joy to Masson, however, for the articles portrayed him in the most unflattering light.

Masson sued Malcolm, the New Yorker Magazine, and the book publisher for defamation.

Malcolm’s narrative device consists of enclosing lengthily passages in quotation marks.

According to Masson, a member of the key passages in the article that purport to quote him were fabrications, attributing to him words he never spoke.

His position in the litigation has been that Malcolm’s alteration of the quotations show the actual malice that is necessary for him to take his case to a jury.

He conceives he is a public figure in the case so he must need the actual malice standard.

Actual malice is a shorthand term, a term of art we use, perhaps it is an unfortunate phrase.

It does not indicate ill will or animosity.

It means, in the context of a defamation suit, that a statement is made with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard for truth or falsity.

Both the District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Masson had not shown actual malice in this sense because the quotations were irrational interpretation of the things that Masson had said.

We granted certiorari and we now reverse.

This case comes to us after a summary judgment was granted, so we must assume that Malcolm acted with the required mental state and that the quotations were in fact altered.

Masson must still prove these matters, and the questions whether he can prevail if he does so.

In some sense, any alteration of a verbatim quotation is false, but writers and reporters by necessity alter what people say at the very least to eliminate grammatical or syntactical infelicities.

If every alteration constituted the falsity required to prove actual malice, the practice of journalism would require a radical change, when inconsistent with our precedents and First Amendment principles.

We reject the idea that any alteration beyond correction of grammar or syntax by a self-proof falsity in the sense relevant to determining actual malice, technical distinctions between correcting grammar and syntax and some greater level of alteration do not appear workable.

We can think of no method by which courts or juries would draw the line between these and other changes except by reference to the meaning a statement conveys to a reasonable reader.

On the other hand, we also reject the Court of Appeals’ views of our cases that any rational interpretation of an ambiguous statement is permitted when quotation marks are used.

Quotation marks used in an orthodox manner indicate to the reader that the author is not interpreting the speaker’s ambiguous statement but is attempting to convey what the speaker said.

Were we to assess quotations under a rational interpretation standard, we would give journalists the freedom to place statements in their subject’s mouths without fear of liability.

By eliminating any method of distinguishing between the statement of the subject and the interpretation of the author, we would diminish the trustworthiness of the printed word and eliminate any real meaning of quotations.

In order to prove falsity, we require that an altered statement convey a materially different meaning to the reader than the actual statement.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This is the sense in which falsity is understood in the common law of defamation and the First Amendment actual malice requirement relies upon this historical understanding.

Quotation marks allow the reader to form his or her conclusions, and to assess the conclusions of the author instead of relying entirely upon the author’s characterization of her subject.

Fabricating quotation may injure reputation in at least two senses, either one giving rise to a conceivable claim in defamation.

First, the quotation might injure because it attributes an untrue factual assertion to the speaker.

An example would be a fabricated quotation by a public official admitting that he had been convicted of a serious crime when in fact he had not been.

Second, regardless of the truth or falsity of the factual matters asserted within the quoted statement, the attribution may result an injury to reputation because the manner of expression or even the fact that the statement was made indicates a negative personal trait or an attitude the speaker does not hold.

John Lennon was once quoted as saying of the Beatles “We are more popular than Jesus Christ now.”

Supposing the quotation had been a fabrication, it appears California law could permit recovery for defamation because even without regard to the truth of the underlying assertion, false attribution of the statement could have injured his reputation.

The self-condemnatory quotation may carry more force than criticism by another.

It is against self-interest to admit one’s own criminal liability, arrogance, or lack of integrity and so all the more easy to credit when it happens.

The principle underlies the elemental rule of evidence which is that admissions are allowed in evidence despite their hearsay character.

Applying these standards to the case before us, we conclude that many of the statements of which petitioner complains, do in fact convey a substantially different meaning than the tape recorded statements, and therefore, evidence to requisite falsity.

The Court of Appeals did not have occasion to address petitioner’s arguments that the two publishers might be held liable either as Malcolm’s employer or because they publish with knowledge or reckless disregard of falsity, we decline to address those arguments in the first instance.

Justice White has filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which Justice Scalia joins.