McDonald v. Smith

PETITIONER: Robert McDonald
RESPONDENT: David I. Smith
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Greensboro Division

DOCKET NO.: 84-476
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 472 US 479 (1985)
ARGUED: Mar 20, 1985
DECIDED: Jun 19, 1985
GRANTED: Nov 26, 1984

Bruce J. Ennis, Jr. - on behalf of Petitioner
William A. Eagles - on behalf of Respondent

Facts of the case

In July 1981, David Smith sued Robert McDonald in state court. Smith alleged that, while he was being considered for the position of U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, McDonald sent two letters to President Ronald Reagan that contained libelous falsehoods about him. Smith claimed that McDonald knew the accusations in the letters were false and that he mailed the letters with malicious intent to undermine the prospect of Smith’s appointment as U.S. Attorney. Smith’s complaint alleged that the letters had their intended effect—he was not appointed to the position, and he suffered damage to his career and reputation—so he sought compensatory damages.

McDonald removed the case to the district court on the basis of diverse citizenship and moved for judgment on the pleadings by arguing that the Petition Clause granted him absolute immunity. The district court held that the Petition Clause granted general immunity but not absolute immunity from liability for libel. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed.


Does the Petition Clause of the First Amendment grant absolute immunity to a defendant charged with sending libelous letters to the President of the United States?

Media for McDonald v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 20, 1985 in McDonald v. Smith

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Ennis, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court, the question is whether the Federal Government's need to obtain information about candidates seeking appointment to federal office, together with the right of a citizen to provide that information in a petition addressed only to appropriate federal officials, requires the same immunity from common law libel actions this Court has already afforded both citizens and governmental officials in a broad range of other circumstances in which providing only qualified immunity would unduly impair the effective functioning of government.

In each of those other circumstances, the fact that immunity would protect not only truthful and useful communications, but also, on occasion, knowingly false and defamatory communications, has been considered a necessary cost of government.

As Justice Harlan wrote for the Court in Barr v. Matteo, affording executive officials immunity from libel actions alleging knowing falsity,

"It has been thought in the end better to leave unredressed the wrongs done by dishonest officers than to subject those who try to do their duty to the constant dread of retaliation. "

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Ennis, do you read any constitutional dimension into Barr v. Matteo?

No, Your Honor, I do not.

I believe that Barr v. Matteo and other decisions of this Court affording immunity to governmental officials is not based on any specific clause of the Constitution.

None was referred to.

But I do believe they were constitutional decisions in the sense that the Court felt that the very constitutional structure of our government required such immunity.

William H. Rehnquist:

I never read Barr v.... I don't think there's a word about the Constitution in Barr v. Matteo.

I've always thought it was a District of Columbia doctrine.

Your Honor, there is not a word about the Constitution in Barr v. Matteo, but the Court nevertheless thought, even though there was no constitutional right of a governmental official at issue, that the effective functioning of the government itself was sufficient to require the rule of immunity.

In this case, we have not only that same governmental interest, but in addition the interest of the citizen critic expressly grounded in the petition clause of the First Amendment.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, what's the source of the law we're dealing with here?

Is it all... is it just constitutional law?

The case was tried under North Carolina libel laws, wasn't it?

The case has not yet been tried, Your Honor.

William H. Rehnquist:

Would it be tried under North Carolina libel law?

It would be tried under North Carolina libel law as that law is modified and governed by the federal Constitution and also by the needs of the Federal Government to receive information.

For example, the Court has also ruled, not relying on any specific constitutional provision, that citizens have a right to provide information about criminal offenses to government; they have a right to testify before legislative and judicial bodies; and they have a right to provide petitions to the judicial branch of government, and they would be absolutely immune from libel actions in each of those circumstances.

We seek no more in this case.

In our view, there are two separate but in this case coinciding interests which require immunity.

The first is the interest of the Federal Government in effective functioning and the second is the interest of the citizen critic in providing the information the government needs to function effectively.

The basic facts--

Byron R. White:

Well, you wouldn't say that it's necessary for the essential function of government to operate on false information.

--Justice White, I know that you have taken pains to concur in several decisions stressing that the Constitution does not directly protect knowingly false information.

Byron R. White:

And the Court has already said that, too.

Yes, the Court has agreed with that, Your Honor.

Byron R. White: