Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc.

PETITIONER: George A. Rosenbloom
RESPONDENT: Metromedia, Inc.
LOCATION: Rosenbloom Residence

DOCKET NO.: 66
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 403 US 29 (1971)
ARGUED: Dec 07, 1970 / Dec 08, 1970
DECIDED: Jun 07, 1971
GRANTED: Feb 24, 1970

ADVOCATES:
Bernard G. Segal - for the respondent
Ramsey Clark - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

George Rosenbloom distributed nudist magazines in the Philadelphia area. Police arrested him at his home on obscenity charges and seized several of the magazines. A local news broadcast, run by Metromedia, Inc., reported on the arrest, but failed to use the words “allegedly” or “reportedly” in during one broadcast. In subsequent broadcasts, the reporters called Rosenbloom and other similar distributors “girlie look peddlers” and “smut distributors”. Eventually, Rosenbloom was acquitted on the obscenity charges.

Rosenbloom then sued Metromedia for libel. The district court held that the First Amendment standard, which allowed recovery of damages only for knowingly and recklessly false statements, did not apply because Rosenbloom was not a public official or figure. The court instead instructed the jury to award damages where Metromedia did not use reasonable care to discern the truth before broadcasting. The jury awarded Rosenbloom general and punitive damages, although the district court reduced the punitive damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, holding that the knowingly and recklessly false standard applied.

Question

(1) Should the knowingly and recklessly false standard for defamatory statements apply to private individuals?

(2) If so, is the evidence presented at trial enough to support the damages originally awarded to Rosenbloom?

Media for Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 07, 1970 in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 08, 1970 in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

-- arguments, Mr. Clark are you reserving the rest of your time for rebuttal or you wish to continue?

Ramsey Clark:

Yes Mr. Chief Justice.

Warren E. Burger:

Very well, Mr. Segal.

Bernard G. Segal:

May it please the Court.

First is I am sure the Court would know, I should like to say that I do not agree at all with my friend Mr. Clark with the question here is whether New York Times and I assume he would include though he did not say Butts and Walker in the rest of the line are to be extended I quote him to 200 million plain people engaging in ordinary life.

That is not the question on which the petition for certiorari was granted.

It is not the question in the petitioner’s brief and it is not the question before this Court.

Further, I say with full difference that I do not agree either with the sketch of the facts presented by Mr. Clark, I must say that some critical facts aren’t exactly stated and other critical facts are omitted.

Therefore, I feel called upon as I had not originally intended to go into the facts with the Court particularly since in the cases I have referred to this Court has adopted the salutary policy of reviewing de novo the cases to find whether the standard for constitutional protection pronounced by the Court has been met in the opinion below whether Jury or Court.

In the first place, we are -- Mr. Clark creates an erroneous impression when he says that there was a series of 21 broadcasts, a series of 21 broadcasts on WIP about Mr. Rosenbloom, there was no series at all.

We’re not dealing here with a feature story, we’re not dealing with a documentary, we’re not dealing with the campaign and we’re not dealing with the crusade, we’re not dealing with the series.

We’re dealing with statements which occupied one sentence to four sentences at the maximum in newscasts by a highly oriented station which every half hour of the day, 24 hours a day, 48 times a day, 320 times a week, every week of the year, everyday of the year, broadcasts every half hour of the year, and every statement before Your Honor fills that category.

It’s a one sentence statement or two sentence statement or a four sentence statement and there is no longer one there.

Now, the second thing my friend Mr. Clark did is he began with the statement of facts which said that on October 1st, there were arrests, 20 of them he said, Mr. Rosenbloom was one.

Well, they were news dealers, they were store operators and they were distributor who supplied these store operators and news dealers, Mr. Rosenbloom.

And then he says the next to that was on October 4, when WIP had a broadcast to which he objects.

Well, Your Honor, a great, great deal happened between October 1 and October 4, to which Mr. Clark did not advert.

What happened here is that is a result of complains from the public, and after a two-month investigation, Mr. Howard Leri, not Captain Ferguson, Mr. Howard Leri I think acknowledged this perhaps at that time America’s leading police commissioner, later commissioner in New York, ordered the arrests by Captain Ferguson and he ordered the crackdown on what he then regarded as obscene material.

I might say to Your Honors that Mr. Clark has made a good deal of Captain Ferguson’s definition and has ridiculed it and has said that this would make the finest paintings in the museum obscene.

But I suggest to Your Honors that just a few years ago, few years before that, we’re now talking about talking about 1963, a Chief Judge of the United States District Court of the State of Washington gave that precise definition of what he thought a majority of the people in the State of Washington considered obscene and a very advertent United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, consisting of three Judges, everyone of whom served as a Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit, affirmed on the opinion below stating that the Judge had found the facts.

So there isn’t any shocking finding here, it was erroneous, erroneous under the decisions of this Court.

Well, on October 1st, when the arrest came, all of the city newspapers had headlines about it and necessarily headlines about Mr. Rosenbloom who was the supplier, and the station CBS TV had headlines about it and that happened on the first and it happened on the second and it happened on the third and they are events to which Mr. Clark did not have heard.

And those newspaper articles and that CBS TV telecast said that Mr. Rosenbloom’s products were smut and were obscene.

And what did Mr. Rosenbloom do about that?

I mentioned just in passing he brought a lawsuit about two weeks later and he didn’t name WIP in that lawsuit.

I’m going to show he didn’t know there was a broadcast in WIP until October 27th, weeks later, didn’t even know there was a broadcast, but he brought a suit against all of the newspapers, against the Police Commissioner, against the District Attorney, one for a million dollars in damages and against CBS TV, not WIP, one for a million dollars in damages and the second to enjoin the Police Commissioner and the District Attorney from prosecuting him for criminal violation of the obscenity law and against the newspapers for calling his products smut and obscene and calling him a smut peddler and a peddler of obscene material.

Did not name WIP and he averred there that so great was his damage by virtue of those broadcasts by those people that all, nearly all of his costumers as the language his used, nearly all of his costumers returned all of his material to him which he had supplied to them.

Potter Stewart:

That damage suit was a suit for defamation similar to this one?

Bernard G. Segal:

That suit was a suit for defamation --

Potter Stewart:

Damage from it?