St. Amant v. Thompson

PETITIONER: Phil A. St. Amant
RESPONDENT: Herman A. Thompson
LOCATION: WAFB TV

DOCKET NO.: 517
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 390 US 727 (1968)
ARGUED: Apr 04, 1968
DECIDED: Apr 29, 1968

ADVOCATES:
Robert L. Kleinpeter - for the respondent
Russell J. Schonekas - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

On June 27, 1962, Phil St. Amant, a candidate for public office, made a television speech in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. During this speech, St. Amant accused his political opponent of being a Communist and of being involved in criminal activities with the head of the local Teamsters Union. Finally, St. Amant implicated Herman Thompson, an East Baton Rouge deputy sheriff, in a scheme to move money between the Teamsters Union and St. Amant’s political opponent.

Thompson successfully sued St. Amant for defamation. Louisiana’s First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Thompson did not show St. Amant acted with “malice.” Thompson then appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. That court held that, although public figures forfeit some of their First Amendment protection from defamation, St. Amant accused Thompson of a crime with utter disregard of whether the remarks were true. Finally, that court held that the First Amendment protects uninhibited, robust debate, rather than an open season to shoot down the good name of anyone who happens to be a public servant.

Question

Did the Louisiana Supreme Court correctly apply the New York Times v. Sullivan test, which required plaintiffs to prove that a defamatory statement against a public official was made with “malice?”

Media for St. Amant v. Thompson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 04, 1968 in St. Amant v. Thompson

Earl Warren:

Number 517, Amant versus Thompson.

Russell J. Schonekas:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

Earl Warren:

Mr. Schonekas.

Russell J. Schonekas:

Yes sir.

This case unlike the two prior ones I don't think is nearly is complicated presents very simple issues were obtained.

I say they're simple because they are singular and simple it's just a question in -- the Louisiana Supreme Court has absolutely refused to follow the instructions and law as laid down by this Court and that by some in substance of the entire case.

Mr. Phil St. Amant was a qualified candidate for the Senate -- for the State of Louisiana and during his campaign he made certain statements against one Herman A. Thompson who was then a police sheriff's captain for one of the parishes, that is the parish of East Baton Rouge unlike -- most every other state we have parishes as apposed to counties.

We're different again in that respect.

We're always different.

Now, we again this particular parish did not have police officers, they have what they call a sheriff's force.

A sheriff with other deputies who will work directly under him and his official functions as a sheriff.

This plaintiff -- respondent here, Herman A. Thompson was a deputy sheriff enjoined the position of captain.

Mr. St. Amant in his campaign and over a -- with a radio address which was also distributed claimed that Mr. Thompson had been received from the other party to -- change of hands of money between themselves and another individual whom he claimed was very nefarious character, Mr. Ed Partin who was a union official with quite a background and who they claimed were very close friends and Mr. Partin had been there and Mr. Thompson had been to Mr. Partin's office and there had been a change of money.

Immediately thereafter, Mr. Thompson, Captain Thompson instituted a liable and slander sued in the State Court of Louisiana under what we referred to as Article 2315, that is the tort law for the State of Louisiana which says that every action of man that causes damage to another he, by whose fault this shall be the case, must repair to damage.

In this damage of liable sued against him, the defense was raised, number one, that there was -- it was to -- not malice, it was not -- was not liable, was not slander etcetera and further in the alternative that if it were that these statements were true that money had exchanged stand.

The case was tried in the lower court, a judgment was rendered against Mr. St. Amant alleging that the statements were liable and slanderous implying malice to him by virtue of these actions that he have taken.

This Court had handed down the Time-Sullivan -- Times case and based on that decision waiving it a new trial was applied for the district level, the judge should consider the decision of the Times case and ruled that it was not applicable here.

He did however hold that Captains -- Thompson was a public official as had been defined in the various cases prior that time but not under the federal theory.

He said that under the laws of Louisiana, Captain Thompson was a public official and that he was a deputy sheriff for the captain level.

But on the rehearing, we consider the Times case, he refused to apply it.

The case then went to our Court of Appeals, the First Circuit at which time the Court of Appeals specifically applied the doctrine and said that the aegis of the Times case did apply, there was no malice, it could not be imputed, they overruled the decision of the lower court and dismissed plaintiff suit.

Rich will apply to it for the normal rehearing to Louisiana Supreme Court.

In the Louisiana Supreme Court, the case was again argued and the Court held that while it did apply again as to the lower court, the District Court and the Court of Appeals that Thompson was a public official under the Times case.

Still that he had not done taking certain action that were required, he to -- they thought to wipe away this threat of malice and therefore we say implied malice again was applied which cannot be done under the decisions that Your Honors have recently written along that line particularly like with Garrison, the Butts case, the Walker case and the Sullivan case.

But nevertheless they did in a 4:3 opinion with the strong dissent by Justice McKellop (ph), the -- we applied for the rehearing subsequently in writ which we are granted here.

The only problem, the only issues that are raised that I see that came here is number one, was this deputy sheriff a public official.

But Your Honors we're very careful to point out in the Times case, you didn't say definitely how far down the line you would go to determine when is a man a public official or a public person as the other line of cases differentiate from public official.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Well, may I ask?

I guess perhaps I don't read your Supreme Court opinion correctly, I thought the holding here was that yes he's a public official within the New York Times rule and therefore was a burden to show malice in the sense of knowing forcefully or reckless disregard that while there was no showing of knowing falsely there was sufficient evidence to show reckless disregard, am I wrong about that?

Russell J. Schonekas:

Yes sir.