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Gertz v. Robert Welch

Supreme Court of the United States

November 14, 1973, Argued ; June 25, 1974, Decided

No. 72-617


 [*325]  [***797]  [**3000]    MR. JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

 This Court has struggled for nearly a decade to define the proper accommodation between the law of defamation and the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment. With this decision we return to that effort. We granted certiorari to reconsider the extent of a publisher's constitutional privilege against liability for defamation of a private citizen. 410 U.S. 925 (1973).

In 1968 a Chicago policeman named Nuccio shot and killed a youth named Nelson. The state authorities prosecuted Nuccio for the homicide and ultimately obtained a conviction for murder in the second degree. The Nelson family retained petitioner Elmer Gertz, a reputable attorney, to represent them in civil litigation against Nuccio.

Respondent publishes American Opinion, a monthly outlet for the views of the John [****6]  Birch Society. Early in the 1960's the magazine began to warn of a nationwide conspiracy to discredit local law enforcement agencies and create in their stead a national police force capable of supporting a Communist dictatorship. As part of the continuing effort to alert the public to this assumed danger, the managing editor of American Opinion commissioned an article on the murder trial of Officer Nuccio. For this purpose he engaged a regular contributor to the magazine. In March 1969 respondent published the resulting article under the title "FRAME-UP: Richard  [*326]  Nuccio And The War On Police." The article purports to demonstrate that the testimony against Nuccio at his criminal trial was false and that his prosecution was part of the Communist campaign against the police.

In his capacity as counsel for the Nelson family in the civil litigation, petitioner attended the coroner's inquest into the boy's death and initiated actions for damages, but the neither discussed Officer Nuccio with the press nor played any part in the criminal proceeding. Notwithstanding petitioner's remote connection with the prosecution of Nuccio, respondent's magazine portrayed him as an architect [****7]  of the "frame-up." According to the article, the police file on petitioner took "a big, Irish cop to lift." The article stated that petitioner had been an official of the "Marxist League for Industrial Democracy, originally known as the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, which has advocated the violent seizure of our government." It labeled Gertz a "Leninist" and a "Communist-fronter." It also stated that Gertz had been an officer of the National Lawyers Guild, described as a Communist organization that "probably did more than any other outfit to plan the Communist attack on the Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic Convention."

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418 U.S. 323 *; 94 S. Ct. 2997 **; 41 L. Ed. 2d 789 ***; 1974 U.S. LEXIS 88 ****; 1 Media L. Rep. 1633



Disposition:  471 F.2d 801, reversed and remanded.


First Amendment, libel, reputation, defamation, press, damages, public figure, publisher, public official, defamatory, private individual, defamatory falsehood, media, reckless disregard, punitive damages, newspaper, cases, broadcaster, falsity, falsehood, slander, public interest, fault, freedom of speech, private citizen, actual injury, libel law, Appeals, constitutional privilege, general interest

Constitutional Law, Freedom of Speech, Defamation, Public Figures, Governments, Legislation, Statutory Remedies & Rights, Torts, Public Figures, Voluntary Public Figures, General Overview, Intentional Torts, Defenses, Privileges, Constitutional Privileges, Defamation, Fundamental Freedoms, State & Territorial Governments, Claims By & Against, Truth, Procedural Matters, Libel, Civil Procedure, Remedies, Damages, Punitive Damages, Types of Damages, Punitive Damages, Damages, Limited Purpose Public Figure