385 U.S. 347 (1967)
Plaintiff and his family were held hostage for 19 hours in their home by three escaped convicts. The family was not harmed, but the story made front pages when the police subsequently killed two of the convicts and captured the third. A few years later, Life Magazine (owned by defendant Time) published an article about a new Broadway thriller, which the article stated was based on plaintiff’s family’s experience. It painted the family in a positive light, stating that they “rose in heroism” in a time of crisis.
Plaintiff brought an action alleging that defendant knew the article falsely gave the public the impression that the play was an accurate account of his family’s experience in violation of a New York statute. The trial judge denied defendant’s motion to dismiss and a jury awarded plaintiff monetary damages. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground that defendant’s “fictionalized” account of plaintiff’s personal life was nor protected by the newsworthiness defense.
Is a publication that contains false statements or representations about a private individual entitled to constitutional protections of free speech and free press?
Holding / Rule
(Brennan) Yes. Judgment set aside and case remanded. A plaintiff cannot recover in tort for a false report of a matter of public interest in the absence of proof that the defendant published the report with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth.
The risk of exposure of private individuals to public view is inevitable in a society that values freedom of speech and of press. Those freedoms are seriously threatened by a rule that requires the press to verify to a certainty facts about a person mentioned in a news article, especially in non-defamatory matters. Fear of large verdicts in damage suits for innocent or merely negligent misstatements would cause publishers to be so careful that even legitimate speech would be suppressed. Nevertheless, calculated falsehoods are not entitled to constitutional free speech and press protections. On the evidence here, a jury could have found either that Life’s misstatement was innocent or merely negligent, or that it was made with reckless disregard of the truth or with actual knowledge that it was false.
Black (joined by Douglas) concurred, reiterating his view in New York Times v. Sullivan that the First Amendment completely barred these types of suits.
Douglas concurred, arguing that the matter was already one of public interest and so even a fictionalized version of the event does not implicate privacy concerns.
Harlan concurred in part and dissented in part, urging the adoption of a negligence standard, in part because of the inability of plaintiff and his family to use counterspeech to offset the errors in the Life Magazine account.
Fortas (joined by Warren and Clark) dissented, arguing that the jury instructions were close enough to the majority’s insistence on knowing or reckless falsity.