Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a newspaper column asking a series of questions that could be read as defamatory is protected by the First Amendment, as articulated by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the statements in the newspaper column were protected speech, reversing the Supreme Court of New Hampshire’s decision.
A columnist for the local Laconia Evening Citizen asked in an editorial for the paper, “What happened to all the money last year? and every other year?” when discussing Frank “Fritzie” Baer’s management of a ski resort and public recreation area. Baer brought a claim of libel against the columnist because of the column.
Importance of Case
The Court had recently decided New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which held that the “actual malice” standard applied to public officials who accused others of libel. “Actual malice” means “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” The Court deferred to the trial judge’s determination that Baer is a public figure. The Court held there must be sufficient evidence that the libelous statements were directed at a specific public official, and not just the governmental body generally. The Court held further that the public official must prove such statements were made with “actual malice” as established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.