Rosenblatt v. Baer

PETITIONER: Alfred D. Rosenblatt
RESPONDENT: Frank P. Baer
LOCATION: Belknap County Recreation Area

DOCKET NO.: 38
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 383 US 75 (1966)
ARGUED: Oct 20, 1965
DECIDED: Feb 21, 1966

ADVOCATES:
Arthur H. Nighswander - for the petitioner
Stanley M. Brown - For the Respondent

Facts of the case

Frank Baer sued Alfred Rosenblatt for libel based on allegedly defamatory statements Rosenblatt made in his editorial for the Laconia Evening Citizen regarding Baer’s performance as Supervisor of the Belknap County Recreation Area. The article questioned the ways that Baer, and the County Commissioners to whom he reported, failed to develop the Area to its full potential. A jury in New Hampshire Superior Court awarded Baer damages. In the time between the outcome of the trial and Rosenblatt’s appeal, the Supreme Court decided New York Times v. Sullivan, where it held that a state cannot award damages to a public official for a defamatory falsehood unless the official proves that there was actual malice—knowledge that the statement was false or reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statement. The New Hampshire Supreme affirmed the award and found that New York Times v. Sullivan had no impact.

Question

Does a government official have to prove that defamatory statements were made in actual malice to succeed in a libel action?

Media for Rosenblatt v. Baer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 20, 1965 in Rosenblatt v. Baer

Earl Warren:

Number 38, Alfred D. Rosenblatt, Petitioner, versus Frank P. Baer.

Mr. Nighswander.

Arthur H. Nighswander:

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

In granting our petition for certiorari, the order of this Court stated that counsel had directed in addition to argue the question whether at the time of respondent's employment as supervisor of a public recreation area, he was a public official under the decisions of this Court in New York Times against Sullivan and Garrison against Louisiana.

By placing a case on the court list for summary argument, we assume that the Court is interested primarily in the very important question which is left unanswered by New York Times and Garrison as to where the line shall be drawn with respect to the protection of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The question is whether this Court having enunciated New York Times a constitutional rule which appears to us to be clear and sound should now limit the rule to public officials in the very narrow sense as argued by the respondent here or include within it public employees who may technically fail to meet a very narrow test, but who nevertheless by reason of the positions they hold, such as the respondent here, have responsibility and authority for action or decision in an area in which the public has a legitimate interest and concern.

In New York Times, the plaintiff or the Commissioner for the City of Montgomery, Alabama in charge of police, the court said “We have no occasion here to determine how far down the lower ranks into the lower ranks of government employees the public official designation would extend for purposes of this rule, or otherwise to specify categories of persons who would or would not be included.”

Now, if we did not believe that the respondent here falls within the scope of New York Times as a public official and if we did not believe that the alleged defamatory question had to do with his official conduct, if in fact they referred to him at all, we should not now be before you.

Although an excellent argument could be made, and I refer you to the brief of the American Civil Liberties Union filed here as an amicus, for a rule which commits comment on all matters of public concern and about all public servants or employees or even public men, when such statements are not accompanied by malice in the constitutional sense, we prefer to argue this case on its own facts.

The respondent was not only a public man or a public employee.He was in fact public official.

Now, in the Garrison case decided in November 23rd, 1964, after the New Hampshire Supreme Court decision in this case, the plaintiffs, you will recall, were judges.

What was said about them was in their official capacity.

No mention is made in this decision as to whether they were elected or appointed which appears to the court apparently to be of no importance.

Now, the next cases were the companion cases of Henry v. Collins and Henry v. Pearson decided in this year.

Now here, one plaintiff was the chief of police and the other was a county attorney.

And again, the court appears to have had no great difficulty in bringing them within the scope of public official rule.

It is evident that there's already been some broadening of the rule since New York Times.

Now comparing the case at bar, it should be borne in mind that the respondent, as in New York Times, was not mentioned by name or reference made specifically to the manager of the appellant area such.

The fact that comparison was made only with respect to the area commission and manager together as compared with prior management, the specific words used in the article were “What magic has Dana Beane?”

That is a new Commissioner and rest of Commission and Mr. Warner who was the new manager under the new authority set up by state legislature “wrought to make such many difference in that cash results?”

Logically then, we say that the comparison sought to be made was with the county commissioners who were elected, and Baer the manager on the one hand with the management.

Now, no effort was made in the article to pinpoint any responsibility or to accuse any one.

Now, consider the facts than in the light of New York Times and Henry case.

Baer's a party over the operation on the taxpayer on and tax for the recreation area delegated him by statute by the county commissions with approval of the county delegation and evidence by a written contract included --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

You say, there's a different contract?

Arthur H. Nighswander:

Yes, Your Honor there was --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Is that or is this a contract under which he was employed?

Arthur H. Nighswander:

He was employed for approximately nine years.

And originally there was a -- a contract that was set up, and then in 1953, the legislature passed the law which set up the office of manager of the Belknap area.

And another contract was made at that time which I believe was for two-year period and thereafter from month to month.