GERTZ v. ROBERT WELCH, INC. | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

To what extent does a publisher (monthly newsletter) have a constitutional privilege against liability for defamation of a private citizen?

Action

Reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Facts/Syllabus

In a magazine called American Opinion, the John Birch Society accused Gertz, an attorney, of being a “Leninist” and a “Communist-fronter” because he chose to represent clients who were suing a law enforcement officer. Gertz lost his libel suit because the trial judge found that the magazine had not violated the actual malice test for libel, which the Supreme Court had established in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the trial judge’s ruling.

Importance of Case

The Court held that the application of the New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) standard in this case was inappropriate because Gertz was neither a public official nor a public figure. It reasoned that ordinary citizens should be allowed more protection from libelous statements than individuals in the public eye. For private individuals, states may not impose strict liability on news media for defamation claims. States are free to establish their own standards of liability for defamatory statements made about private individuals, but if the state standard is lower than actual malice—the standard applying to public figures—then only actual damages may be awarded.

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