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Dun & Bradstreet v. Greenmoss Builders

Supreme Court of the United States

March 21, 1984, Argued ; June 26, 1985, Decided

No. 83-18

Opinion

 [*751]   [***597]   [**2941]  JUSTICE POWELL  [****5]  announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which JUSTICE REHNQUIST and JUSTICE O'CONNOR joined.

In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), we held that the First Amendment restricted the damages that a private individual could obtain from a publisher for a libel that involved a matter of public concern. More specifically, we held that in these circumstances the First Amendment prohibited awards of presumed and punitive damages for false and defamatory statements unless the plaintiff shows "actual malice," that is, knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The question presented in this case is whether this rule of Gertz applies when the false and defamatory statements do not involve matters of public concern.

Petitioner Dun & Bradstreet, a credit reporting agency, provides subscribers with financial and related information about businesses. All the information is confidential; under the terms of the subscription agreement the subscribers may not reveal it to anyone else. On July 26, 1976, petitioner sent a report to five subscribers indicating that respondent, a construction contractor, had filed a voluntary [****6]  petition for bankruptcy. This report was false and grossly misrepresented respondent's assets and liabilities. That same day, while discussing the possibility of future financing with its bank, respondent's president was told that the bank had received the defamatory report. He immediately called petitioner's regional office, explained the error, and asked for a correction. In addition, he requested the names  [***598]  of the firms that had received the false report in order to assure them that the company was solvent. Petitioner promised to look into the matter but refused to divulge the names of those who had received the report.

After determining that its report was indeed false, petitioner issued a corrective notice on or about August 3, 1976,  [*752]  to the five subscribers who had received the initial report. The notice stated that one of respondent's former employees, not respondent itself, had filed for bankruptcy and that respondent "continued in business as usual." Respondent told petitioner that it was dissatisfied with the notice, and it again asked for a list of subscribers who had seen the initial report. Again petitioner refused to divulge their names.

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472 U.S. 749 *; 105 S. Ct. 2939 **; 86 L. Ed. 2d 593 ***; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 103 ****; 53 U.S.L.W. 4866; 11 Media L. Rep. 2417

DUN & BRADSTREET, INC. v. GREENMOSS BUILDERS, INC.

Subsequent History:  [****1]  October 3, 1984, Reargued.

Prior History: CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF VERMONT.

Disposition:  143 Vt. 66, 461 A. 2d 414, affirmed.

CORE TERMS

first amendment, presumed, punitive damages, First Amendment, damages, reputation, press, actual malice, libel, defamation, cases, matter of public concern, advertising, credit reporting, public official, state interest, regulation, malice, media, credit report, public issue, defamatory, matters, nonmedia, protections, Consumer, chilling, reckless disregard, public figure, subscribers

Torts, Defamation, Public Figures, Actual Malice, Constitutional Law, Freedom of Speech, General Overview, Public Figures, Public Questions, Intentional Torts, Defamation, Voluntary Public Figures, Bill of Rights, Fundamental Freedoms, Civil Procedure, Remedies, Damages, Punitive Damages, Damages