Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Company

PETITIONER: Michael Milkovich
RESPONDENT: Lorain Journal Co., The News Herald, J. Theodore Diadiun
LOCATION: Maple Heights High School

DOCKET NO.: 89-645
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: Ohio Supreme Court

CITATION: 497 US 1 (1990)
ARGUED: Apr 24, 1990
DECIDED: Jun 21, 1990
GRANTED: Jan 22, 1990

ADVOCATES:
Brent Lawson English - on behalf of the Petitioner
Richard D. Panza - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case

Milkovich was a wrestling coach at the Maple Heights High School in the state of Ohio.

In 1974 during the match at home place his team was engaged in the altercation, in the result of which few persons were harmed. After the accident, the Athletic Association of this school decided to stop the team participation in competition and pass it on the period of probation. Following that some students and their parents brought a suit on this school bode of authority with the purpose to deny the decision regarding the team replacement on the trial period. They claimed that their rights were infringed because of breach of the due process established by the Constitution. The court canceled the relevant order, and on the following that day the defendant wrote an article in the journal, arguing that the coach gave false testimonies during the examination and due to that the decision was denied.

The plaintiff Milkovich filed a claim before the court complaining about the publication of the article by Lorain Journal Co. that stated about allegedly his lie under oath during the trial hearing. He argued that such action was the kind of attack on his personality and could be deemed as defamation.

The district court found that the article is the expression of freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution. However, the case study reflected that the appellation to the Supreme Court changed the resolving of this issue. The judges made the research that despite on the rights of publishers to the free content of writings, they should follow the prescriptions of the laws on defamation issues and to prevent any information that can be deemed as the attack on some person reputation. Hence, the case brief finds out, that the final judgment overturned the previous rulings in favor of petitioner.

Question

Are the statements in the newspaper article constitutionally protected opinions?

Media for Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 24, 1990 in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Company

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 89-645, Michael Milkovich v. the Lorain Journal Company.

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

Brent Lawson English:

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

The sole question before the Court this morning with respect to this case is whether false and defamatory statements published about the petitioner by the respondents are entitled to constitutional protection under the First Amendment.

This Court has repeatedly stated that there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.

Yet the Ohio courts below have afforded exactly that protection in this case.

This Court has the opportunity to correct that error and to delineate finally how the opinion/fact distinction should be made in the context of defamation law.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. English, do you think that this case involves a matter of public concern?

Brent Lawson English:

Your Honor, not a general matter of public concern, but certainly a matter of public concern as to the local communities involved.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Does it fall under the rubric of the Hepps case?

Brent Lawson English:

Your Honor, I believe it does fall under the rubric of the Hepps case, and had the Hepps case been properly followed by the trial court, clearly this case would have been actionable as opposed to absolutely privileged.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And if it's... if Hepps applies, then the plaintiff below would have the burden of proving falsity?

Brent Lawson English:

Without a doubt, Your Honor, that is absolutely the case.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And are these statements capable of being proven false?

Brent Lawson English:

Your Honor, these statements are quite capable of being proven false.

There are actually four statements unequivocally that could be proven false.

As the Supreme Court of Ohio in the Milkovich decision in late 1984 held, the primary impact of this article is to accuse the petitioner of committing the crime of perjury.

The proceeding at which the alleged perjury occurred was of records, stenographically recorded, and clearly the testimony at that proceeding could easily be compared with the statements that Mr. Milkovich had made previously as to the same question.

And thus, a reasonable jury could determine whether or not the statements in fact were false or whether they were true.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

If that's true, it doesn't much matter whether you label it fact or opinion, does it?

Brent Lawson English:

Your Honor, I would agree with you.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

The question is whether you can prove that it's false.

Brent Lawson English:

Clearly this Court in the Hepps case has indicated, at least with reference to private individuals on matters of public concern involving newspapers... which is exactly the situation that we have here... that it is the Plaintiff's burden to establish without resort to presumptions that a particular statement is false.

We believe that that can be demonstrated in this instance without difficulty and, therefore, the action should have been allowed to proceed and unquestionably it should not have been protected by the First Amendment.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

So... so you would... would accept as a definition of opinion is something that cannot be proven true or false?

Brent Lawson English:

Your Honor, I would say that that is a fundamental aspect of the question of opinion.

If something cannot be proved true or false, I would suggest to the Court that it could be properly labeled as opinion.

However, as Justice O'Connor has just mentioned, it may not be necessary in this area of the law to even adopt any kind of opinion privilege if we require a defamation plaintiff to affirmatively prove falsity.

But in this case, the allegation is that Mr. Milkovich lied under oath in a judicial proceeding.

That is quintessentially an assertion of fact which, if false, should be actionable under the state law of defamation.