RESPONDENT: James J. Hill
LOCATION: Life Magazine Office
DOCKET NO.: 22
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
- Opinion Announcement - January 09, 1967
- Oral Argument - April 27, 1966
- Oral Reargument - October 18, 1966
- Oral Reargument - October 19, 1966
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.