JEFFREY M. MASSON v. NEW YORKER MAGAZINE, INC., ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC. AND JANET MALCOLM

Supreme Court Cases

501 U.S. 496 (1991)

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Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether, consistent with the First Amendment, a public figure can recover libel damages from the publisher of an article that attributes altered quotations to the public figure.

Action

Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.

Facts/Syllabus

During 1982 and 1983 writer Janet Malcolm frequently interviewed Jeffrey Masson for an article she was writing about the Sigmund Freud Archives. Mr. Masson had worked as the Projects Director of the Archives until his disenchantment with psychoanalysis led to his termination. Six passages in the article contained quotations from Mr. Masson that Mr. Masson claimed he never made. Ms. Malcolm's 40 hours of taped interviews demonstrated that the quotations either were never made or had been altered in varying degrees. Mr. Masson sued for libel, but the trial court dismissed the suit on the grounds that the altered quotations either were substantially true or rational interpretations of statements that Mr. Masson had made. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on similar grounds, holding that Mr. Masson could not prove that Ms. Malcolm had published the altered quotations knowing that their meaning was false.

Under the First Amendment, a public figure cannot prevail in a libel action unless he or she proves that the author knew that the alleged defamatory statement was false or acted with reckless disregard as to the statement's truth. The public figure also must prove that the statement injures his reputation and is not at least substantially true. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).

Importance of Case

The Court had never before addressed this issue and it resisted the temptation offered by Justices White and Scalia to hold that any altered quotation could be used to establish knowing falsity. The Court held that the deliberate alteration of quoted material can demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of falsity if the alteration results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement. This holding is consistent with the Court's prior rulings concerning actual malice, i.e., knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth, and substantial truth.

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