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10 Most Important U.S. Supreme Court Cases for Journalists


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Gertz vs. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)

Robert Welch, Inc., publisher of American Opinion, a magazine that spread the views of the ultraconservative John Birch Society, warned that Communist sympathizers were trying to frame police officers -- and sparked a case that defined libel for private individuals. When Chicago police officer Robert Nuccio was convicted of a young man's murder, local attorney Elmer Gertz represented the victim's family in a civil suit. An article in the magazine contained several factual misstatements about Gertz, who didn't frame Nuccio in any way.

Gertz sued for defamation; a trial court ruled that Gertz had to prove that the magazine acted with actual malice since the article discussed important public issues. Gertz argued that because he was a private person, not a public figure, he only needed to show negligence or fault.

The Court ruled 5-4 that a private person doesn't have to show actual malice in order to prove libel -- even if the defamatory comments concern public issues. The Supreme Court distinguished between public and private individuals for the purposes of defamation law: "Private persons are more vulnerable to injury, and the state interest in protecting them is correspondingly greater." The Court reasoned that public officials and public figures have greater access to the media, and thus can better counteract false statements than private individuals.

In this case, the Court set up a different standard for private individuals, saying that states themselves could define the appropriate standard of liability for a journalist who makes defamatory, false statements about a private individual [source: Freedom Forum].