Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

PETITIONER: Ilya Wolston
RESPONDENT: Reader's Digest Association, Inc., et al.
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Columbia

DOCKET NO.: 78-5414
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 443 US 157 (1979)
ARGUED: Apr 17, 1979
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1979
GRANTED: Jan 08, 1979

John J. Buckley, Jr. - for respondents
Sidney Dickstein - for petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1957 and 1958, Ilya Wolston’s aunt and uncle, Myra and Jack Soble, were the subject of an investigation to find Soviet intelligence agents in the United States. On one occasion, Wolston failed to respond to a subpoena and pleaded guilty to a contempt charge. The incident was publicized in newspapers, but Wolston succeeded in returning to life as a private citizen. In 1974, Reader’s Digest Association published a book by John Barron about the KGB and Soviet agents in the United States. The book and its index identified Wolston as a Soviet agent.

Wolston sued the author and publishers for libel in district court. The district court granted summary judgment for the Association and held that Wolston was a “public figure” and had to prove the Association acted with actual malice to prevail in a libel suit. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.


Is Wolston a public figure and required to prove actual malice in order to win a libel suit?

Media for Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 17, 1979 in Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Wolston against Reader's Digest.

We'll wait another minute or so, counsel, while your audience is reduced.

I think you may proceed whenever you're ready Mr. Dickstein.

Sidney Dickstein:

Thank you.

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

Petitioner in this case is Ilya Wolston who is the nephew of Jack and Myra Soble, admitted Soviet espionage agents.

Following the Soble's arrest in 1957 in their later plea of guilty to espionage charges, Wolston received and failed to comply with the grand jury subpoena.

Following commencement of the trial on the resulting contempt charge, Wolston pleaded guilty, received a one-year suspended sentence conditioned on his future cooperation with federal authorities and was placed on three years probation.

Newspaper stories relating to Wolston's failure to appear in his contempt hearing, his plea and his sentence were published between July 15 and August 14, 1958.

As the District Court observed however, Wolston had led a thoroughly private existence and was generally unknown until his failure to appear before the grand jury became public knowledge.

And after the flurry of publicity attending his conviction ceased, he apparently succeeded for the most part in resuming his private ways.

The defamatory statements at issue here are found in a book entitled KGB, the Secret Work of Soviet Agents, which was written by John Barron an employee of the Reader's Digest Association Inc.

It was published in 1974 by Reader's Digest press and republished by two book clubs and in paperback by Bantam Books.

The defamatory statements on the book identified petitioner as a Soviet agent undifferentiated from the Rosenbergs, William Remington, Judith Coplon, Harry Gold, and other infamous figures of Soviet espionage.

A footnote to the identification of Wolston as a Soviet agent can be read to mean that petitioners -- petitioner had been indicted for espionage as well as convicted of contempt of court.

Following petitioner's filing of this action a diversity action in the District of Columbia, the author of KGB was deposed.

He testified that his identification of Wolston as a Soviet agent was predicated upon a 1960 FBI report --

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Dickstein, could I ask you the same question I asked counsel in the case preceding, then the source of law is District of Columbia law?

Sidney Dickstein:

The source of law in so far as federal issues are not concerned and is of course the District of Columbia.

William H. Rehnquist:

The basic right rise out of the District of Columbia law.

Sidney Dickstein:

That is correct, it does.

Barron also testified that prior to and while he was writing KGB, he was completely familiar with the book entitled “My Ten Years as a Counterspy” which was written by Boris Morros and published in 1959.

In this book, Morros recounts that Soble has identified his nephew Wolston as “Slava” a person who would purportedly furnish Soble with information.

Morros' book referred to Wolston sentenced for contempt of court, but the book concluded that he knew nothing about Wolston's activities except that which Soble and I quote “a confirmed liar” had told him.

Barron testified that notwithstanding his authorization to invest as much time and research as necessary on the book, the full backing of the Reader's Digest organization, the assignment to him of a fulltime researcher, his use of the worldwide research facilities of the Reader's Digest and cooperation by the FBI and other federal agencies which had been assured and which he received.

In the over four years that this book was in preparation, he made no attempt to verify the information set out in the book concerning Wolston and relied he said solely on the FBI report.

With regard to the footnote reference in the book which the District Court and the Court of Appeals both agreed appear to state falsely that Wolston had been indicted for espionage.

Barron testified that he knew that Wolston had not been indicted, but that the persons to which the note refer, which included Wolston, had been convicted of espionage or falsifying information or perjury and/or contempt charges.

And that I take it meant Wolston following the espionage indictment of other people.

In support of the defendant's motion for summary judgment, Barron submitted an affidavit in which he says “I was confident upon publication of KGB that the book as a whole and each and every statement in it were true, and I was aware of no fact that tended to make me doubt the truth of the book or of any statement in it.”