Opinions & Commentaries

355 U.S. 171 (1957) BARR v. MATTEO ET AL.         No. 409. Supreme Court of United States.    Decided December 9, 1957. CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.Solicitor General Rankin, Assistant Attorney General Doub, Paul A. Sweeney and Bernard Cedarbaum for petitioner.PER CURIAM.The petition for certiorari is granted. The petition presents this question: “Whether the absolute immunity from defamation suits accorded officials of the Government with respect to acts done within the scope of their official authority, extends to statements to the press by high policy-making officers, below cabinet […]

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Appellant is the District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana. During a dispute with the eight judges of *65 the Criminal District Court of the Parish, he held a press conference at which he issued a statement disparaging their judicial conduct. As a result, he was tried without a jury before a judge from another parish and convicted of criminal defamation under the Louisiana Criminal Defamation Statute.[1] The principal charges alleged to *66 be defamatory were his attribution of a large backlog of pending criminal cases to the inefficiency, laziness, and excessive vacations of the judges, and his accusation that, by refusing to authorize disbursements to cover the expenses of undercover investigations of vice in New Orleans, the judges had hampered his efforts to enforce the vice laws. In impugning their motives, he said:

"The judges have now made it eloquently clear where their sympathies lie in regard to aggressive vice investigations by refusing to authorize use of the DA's funds to pay for the cost of closing down the Canal Street clip joints . . . .
.....
". . . This raises interesting questions about the racketeer influences on our eight vacation-minded judges."[2]
*67 The Supreme Court of Louisiana affirmed the conviction, 244 La. 787, 154 So. 2d 400. The trial court and the State Supreme Court both rejected appellant's contention that the statute unconstitutionally abridged his freedom of expression. We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal. 375 U. S. 900. Argument was first heard in the 1963 Term, and the case was ordered restored to the calendar for reargument, 377 U. S. 986. We reverse.

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Petitioner was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $3,000 for printing a pamphlet found to be prohibited by the common law of criminal libel in Kentucky. The Kentucky Court of Appeals, with three judges dissenting, affirmed petitioner's conviction. 405 S. W. 2d 562. We granted certiorari (382 U. S. 971) and reverse.

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The question presented by this case is whether the Louisiana Supreme Court, in sustaining a judgment for damages in a public official's defamation action, correctly interpreted and applied the rule of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964), that the plaintiff in such an action must prove that the defamatory publication "was made with `actual malice'—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U. S., at 279-280.

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391 U.S. 592 (1968) WATTS ET AL. v. SEWARD SCHOOL BOARD ET AL.   No. 325. Supreme Court of United States.   Argued March 26, 1968. Decided June 3, 1968. CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA.George Kaufmann argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners. Theodore M. Pease, Jr., argued the cause and filed a brief for respondents. PER CURIAM. The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of Alaska for further consideration in light of Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County, ante, p. 563. MR. JUSTICE […]

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This case involves three state libel judgments imposing liability of $165,000 on a labor union as a result of statements made in a union newsletter during a continuing organizational drive. The question presented is whether these libel judgments can be squared with the freedom of speech in labor disputes guaranteed under federal law.

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Respondent United States Senator publicizes examples of wasteful governmental spending by awarding his "Golden Fleece of the Month Award." One such award was given to federal agencies that had funded petitioner scientist's study of emotional behavior in which he sought an objective measure of aggression, concentrating upon the behavior patterns of certain animals. The award was announced in a speech prepared with the help of respondent legislative assistant, the text of which was incorporated in a widely distributed press release. Subsequently, the award was also referred to in newsletters sent out by the Senator, in a television interview program on which he appeared, and in telephone calls made by the legislative assistant to the sponsoring federal agencies. Petitioner sued respondents in Federal District Court for defamation, alleging, inter alia, that in making the award and publicizing it nationwide, respondents had damaged him in his professional and academic standing. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause afforded absolute immunity for investigating the funding of petitioner's research, for the speech in the Senate, and for the press release, since it fell within the "informing function" of Congress. The court further held that petitioner was a "public figure" for purposes of determining respondents' liability; that respondents were protected by the First Amendment, thereby requiring petitioner to prove "actual malice"; and that, based on the depositions, affidavits, and pleadings, there was no genuine issue of material fact on the issue of actual malice, neither respondents' failure to investigate nor unfair editing and summarizing being sufficient to establish "actual malice." Finally, the court held that, even if petitioner were found to be a "private person," relevant state law required a summary judgment for respondents. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause protected the statements made in the press release and newsletters and that, although the followup telephone calls and the statements made on television were not protected by that Clause, they were protected by the First Amendment, since petitioner was a "public figure," and that on the record there was no showing of "actual malice." Held: 1. While this Court's practice is to avoid reaching constitutional questions if a dispositive nonconstitutional ground is available, special considerations in this case mandate that the constitutional questions first be resolved. If respondents have immunity under the Speech or Debate Clause, no other questions need be considered. And where it appears that the Court of Appeals would not affirm the District Court's state law holding, so that the appeal could not be decided without reaching the First Amendment issue, that issue will also be reached here. Pp. 443 U. S. 122-123. 2. The Speech or Debate Clause does not protect transmittal of information by individual Members of Congress by press releases and newsletters. Pp. 443 U. S. 123-133. (a) There is nothing in the history of the Clause or its language suggesting any intent to create an absolute privilege from liability or suit for defamatory statements made outside the legislative Chambers; precedents support the conclusion that a Member may be held liable for republishing defamatory statements originally made in the Chamber. Pp. 443 U. S. 127-130. (b) Neither the newsletters nor the press release here was "essential to the deliberation of the Senate," and neither was part of the deliberative process. Gravel v. United States, 408 U. S. 606; Doe v. McMillan, 412 U. S. 306. P. 443 U. S. 130. (c) The newsletters and press release were not privileged as part of the "informing function" of Members of Congress to tell the public about their activities. Individual Members' transmittal of information about their activities by press releases and newsletters is not part of the legislative function or the deliberations that make up the legislative process; in contrast to voting and preparing committee reports, which are part of Congress' function to inform itself, newsletters and press releases are primarily means of informing those outside t.he legislative forum, and represent the views and will of a single Member. Doe v. McMillan, supra, distinguished. Pp. 443 U. S. 132-133. 3. Petitioner is not a "public figure" so as to make the "actual malice" standard of proof of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, applicable. Neither the fact that local newspapers reported the federal grants to petitioner for his research nor the fact that he had access to the news media as shown by reports of his response to the announcement of the Golden Fleece Award demonstrates that he was a public figure prior to the controversy engendered by that award. His access, such as it was, came after the alleged libel, and was limited to responding to the announcement of the award. Those charged with alleged defamation cannot, by their own conduct, create their own defense by making the claimant a public figure. Nor is the concern about public expenditures sufficient to make petitioner a public figure, petitioner at no time having assumed any role of public prominence in the broad question of such concern. Pp. 443 U. S. 133-136. 579 F.2d 1027, reversed and remanded. BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in all but n. 10 of which STEWART, J., joined. STEWART, J., filed a statement concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 443 U. S. 136. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 443 U. S. 136.

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We granted certiorari to decide whether the Petition Clause of the First Amendment provides absolute immunity to a defendant charged with expressing libelous and damaging falsehoods in letters to the President of the United States.

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In 2001, Congress created the Transportation SecurityAdministration (TSA) to assess and manage threats againstair travel. Aviation and Transportation Security Act(ATSA), 49 U. S. C. §44901 et seq. To ensure that theTSA would be informed of potential threats, Congress gaveairlines and their employees immunity against civil liabil-ity for reporting suspicious behavior. §44941(a). But thisimmunity does not attach to “any disclosure made withactual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate,or misleading” or “any disclosure made with recklessdisregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.”§44941(b).

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February 15, 2017

Defamation refers to false statements of fact that harm another’s reputation. It encompasses both libel and slander. Libel generally refers to written defamation, while slander refers to oral defamation.

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