Time, Inc. v. Hill

LOCATION: Life Magazine Office

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1965-1967)
LOWER COURT: New York Court of Appeals

CITATION: 385 US 374 (1967)
ARGUED: Apr 27, 1966
REARGUED: Oct 18, 1966 / Oct 19, 1966
DECIDED: Jan 09, 1967

Harold R. Medina, Jr. – argued and reargued for the appellant
Richard M. Nixon – argued and reargued for the appellee

Facts of the case

In 1952, three escaped convicts took James Hill, his wife, and their five children hostage in their Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, home. After nineteen hours, the family was released unharmed. The convicts were later apprehended in a violent clash with police during which two of them were killed. In 1953, Joseph Hays’ published a novel based on the Hill family’s ordeal. When the novel was subsequently made into a play, Life Magazine (“Life”) printed an article about the play that mirrored many of its inaccuracies concerning the Hill family’s experience. Alleging that it deliberately misrepresented his story, Hill sought damages against Life. On appeal from an adverse ruling, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court remanded for a new trial where a reduced adverse ruling was imposed on Life. Following an unsuccessful appeal in the New York Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court granted Life’s owner, Time Inc. (“Time”) certiorari.


Is a publication, containing misrepresentations about the subject of its coverage, protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantees?

Media for Time, Inc. v. Hill

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 27, 1966 in Time, Inc. v. Hill
Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument – October 18, 1966 in Time, Inc. v. Hill
Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument – October 19, 1966 in Time, Inc. v. Hill

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 09, 1967 in Time, Inc. v. Hill

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

I have pronouncement number 22 Time Inc. v Hill which is here from the Court of Appeals of New York.

This law suit is a sequel to publicity given to an experience suffered by James Hill and his family of five, when they lived in a suburb outside Philadelphia.

Three escaped convicts entered their home and held the family hostage for some 19 hours.

The plight of the family during that time became a matter of national news and concern and thus the family involuntarily became news celebrity.

When the family was released by the convicts, Mr. Hill held a press conference, contrary of the fears to the country he reported that the family had not been harmed in the slightest and the convicts have treated them courteously and had neither threatened nor molested any of them.

Now Mr. Hill wanted is family to forget the experience and he rejected to all magazine and television offers, the reenacted and shortly after it occurred the family moved from Pennsylvania to Connecticut.

Three years later James Hayes wrote a novel, became a best seller called The Desperate Hours, that novel depicted the experience of a family of five held hostage by three escaped convicts in the family’s suburban home.

And later Hayes wrote a play with the same theme and also called The Desperate Hours.

Now the family of the novel and the family of play was not named Hill, but the experience depicted was in sharp contrast to the actual experience suffered by the Hills.

The family of the play was subjected to violence, the father and son are beaten, the teenage daughter was subjected to a verbal sexual assault.

The play opened in Philadelphia and the members of Life magazines staff learned that the story theme was similar to the Hill family’s experience, Life decided to review the play in an unusual presentation.

Life arranged the photograph the cast of the play reenacting scenes from it in the house which had been the Hill family home in the Philadelphia suburb.

The photographs taken at the home were then used to illustrate Life’s review of the play.

Now that review falsely stated that the play in fact reenacted the Hill family’s experience.

And there upon Mr. Hill brought this lawsuit from damages under the New York statute, which provides that person may recover damages who’s name, portrait or picture is used within New York for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without having first obtained the written consent of such person.

And Life had made no effort whatever to obtain the Hill family’s consent for the use of their name in the article about the play.

The Jury awarded damages to the Hills in this action, in which the New York courts, starting with a trial court through the appellate division and up to the court of the appeal, rejected Life’s defense, the article is a subject of legitimate news interest and that in such circumstances the application of the statute to award damages denied constitutional protections for speech and price.

So the constitutional question we have to decide is the narrow one whether a newspaper or magazine maybe subjected the damages for a false report of a newsworthy event.

New York courts have made crystal clear that a truthful report of newsworthy people or events is not actionable under the New York statute.

Those courts have held that a newsworthy person has a right of action under the statute only when his name, picture or portrait is the subject of a fictitious report or article.

Material and substantial falsification is the test, the establishment of minor errors and an otherwise accurate report does not proof fictionalization under the New York cases.

However, it’s not clear in those cases whether there is liability in the absence of truth that the news paper or magazine knew that the report was false or published it with the reckless disregard of it’s truth.

Now for the reasons detail that greater length in our opinion we hold that the constitutional protection for speech in press, precludes the application of the New York statute to newsworthy person, to newsworthy person I emphasize.

In the absence of truth that the news paper or magazine published the report with knowledge of falsely or in reckless disregard of the truth.

Legalities for speech and press are not the preserve the political expression or comment found public affairs essential as those are to help the government, one need to only pick up any newspaper or magazine to comprehend the vast range of published matter which exposes persons to public view both private citizens and public officials.

Exposure of the self to others in varying degrees is contaminating a life from the civilized community.

The risk of this exposure is an essential incident of life in a society which places a primary value on freedom of speech and to the press.

Freedom of discussion would fulfill it’s historic function in this nation must embrace all issues about which information is needed or appropriate will enable the members of society to cope with the exigencies of their period.

And we have no doubt the subject of the life article the opening of a new play linked to an actual incident is a matter of public interest.

Erroneous statement is no less inevitable in such case then in the case of comment upon public affairs and in both the innocent of merely negligent it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the breathing space that they need to survive.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

We create a great risk of serious impairment of the indispensible service of a free press in a free society, if we saddle the press with the impossible verdict.

Verifying to a certain need the facts associated to news articles with the person’s name picture of portrait, particularly as related to non-inflammatory matter which this was.

Even negligence would be a most elusive standard, especially when the content of the speech itself aborts no warning of respect of harm to another through falsity.

A negligence test would place on the press the intolerable burden guessing how a jury might assess the reasonableness of steps taken by it to verify the accuracy of every reference, the name, picture or portrait.

In this context sanctions against either innocent or negligent misstatement would present a great hazard of discouraging the press from exercising the constitutional guarantee.

We must all remember that those guarantees are not for the benefit of the press, so much is for the benefit of all of us.

A broadly defined freedom of the press, assures the maintenance of our political system in an open society.

Fear of large verdicts or damaged suits for innocent or mere negligence statement, even fear the expense involved in their defense, must inevitably cause publishers to steer wider of the unlawful zone.

But the constitutional guarantees can tolerate sanctions against calculated forces, without significant impairment of their essential function.

We held a term or two ago, New York Times v. Sullivan that calculated falsehood should enjoy no immunity in the case of the alleged deformation of a public official’s official conduct.

Similarly calculated falsehood should enjoy no immunity in the situation presented in this case.

The use of calculated falsehood would say different cast on the constitutional question although honest utterance even if inaccurate may further the fruitful exercise of the right of free speech.

It does follow that the lie knowingly and deliberately published should enjoy like immunity.

But the use of the known lie as a tool is at once at odds with premises a democratic government and with the orderly manner in which economic social or political change is to be effected.

Now we find applicable here the standard of knowing our reckless falsehood, not through blind application of our decision in New York Times v. Sullivan which related solely to liable actions by public official.

But only upon consideration of the factors which arise in the particular context the application to the New York statute in cases involving private individual.

Now this is neither a libel action by private individual nor a statutory action by a public official.

Therefore although the First Amendment principles announced in New York Times v. Sullivan guide our conclusion here, we reach that conclusion only by applying these principles in this discrete conflict.

Now as this case went to the jury, the Hills were regarded to be newsworthy person, substantially without a right to privacy and so far as their hostage experience was involved but to be entitled to a recovery and so far as that experience was fictionalized and exploited for Life’s commercial benefit.

And it’s clear if the proofs reasonably would support, either a jury finding of innocence or mere negligent misstatement by Life or a finding that Life portrait the play as a reenactment of the Hill families experience reckless of the truth or the actual knowledge that the portrayal was false.

The difficulty here is that the instruction to the jury did not confine the jury to a verdict of liability based on a finding that the statements in the Life article were made was knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth.

And our opinion analyzes the instructions in detail and demonstrate the error in the instructions in that respect.

Now Life argues that the statute should be declared unconstitutional on it’s face, if construed by the New York courts to impose liability without proof of knowing a reckless falsity.

We don’t think that such a declaration would be warranted.

The New York court of appeals has been assiduous to construe this statute, to avoid invasion of the constitutional protections for speech in press.

And we therefore confidentially expect that the New York courts will apply the statute consistently with the constitutional command.

And a possible difference with us as to the thrust of the constitutional command is narrowly limited in this case to the failure of the trial judges as I said, will instruct the jury that a verdict of liability could be predicated only on a finding of knowing a reckless falsity in the publication of the life article.

The judgment of the court of appeals is therefore set aside and the case remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.

Justices Black and Douglas asked me announce, they have joined the court’s opinion, but have also filed separate concurring opinion.

They express the view that to allow liability in these cases even though limited the cases of knowing in reckless falsity is to abridge speech but I will join the court’s opinion in order to make possible and adjudication that can controls this litigation.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Mr. Justice Harland has asked me to announce.

That he concurs in the judgment of reversal, but with predicate liability on a negligence standard rather than on a standard of knowing a reckless false.

Mr. Justice Fortas has asked me to announce that he has filed a descent in which the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Clark have joined.

Earl Warren:

The other orders of the court have been certified by the Chief Justice and filed with Clerk and will not be announced orally.