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The law of privilege as a defense by officers of government to civil damage suits for defamation and kindred torts has in large part been of judicial making, although the United States Constitution itself gives an absolute privilege to members of both Houses of Congress in respect to any speech, debate, vote, report, or action done in session. U.S. Const. art. I, § 6. The United States Supreme Court has held that judges of courts of superior or general authority are absolutely privileged as respects civil suits to recover for actions taken by them in the exercise of their judicial functions, irrespective of the motives with which those acts are alleged to have been performed and that a like immunity extends to other officers of government whose duties are related to the judicial process. Nor has the privilege been confined to officers of the legislative and judicial branches of the government and executive officers.
Following a widely publicized congressional challenge to the integrity of operations of the Office of Rent Stabilization, petitioner, the Acting Director of that agency, issued a press release in which he gave reasons why he intended to suspend two other officers of the agency. Those officers thereafter brought a libel suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia based upon statements contained in the press release. Petitioner's claim that the issuance of the press release was protected either by a qualified or an absolute privilege was overruled by the trial court, and the jury found for the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, considering only the issue of absolute privilege, and, after granting certiorari, the United States Supreme Court vacated the affirmance and remanded the case with directions that the question of qualified privilege should be considered. (355 US 171, 2 L ed 2d 179, 78 S Ct 204.) On remand, the Court of Appeals held that a qualified privilege existed with respect to the press release but was defeated by petitioner's malice; it remanded the case to the District Court for a new trial. Petitioner sought, and the Court again, granted certiorari to determine whether in the circumstances of the case, petitioner's claim of absolute privilege should have stood as a bar to maintenance of the suit despite the allegations of malice made in the complaint.
Should petitioner’s claim of absolute privilege serve as a bar to the maintenance of the suit, notwithstanding allegations of malice made in the complaint?
The Court held that the agency's plea of absolute privilege in defense of the alleged libel published at the direction of the director had to be sustained. The Court noted that petitioner was the Acting Director of an important agency of government, and was clothed by redelegation with all powers, duties, and functions conferred on the President by Title II of the Housing and Rent Act of 1947 The integrity of the internal operations of the agency which he headed, and thus his own integrity in his public capacity, had been directly and severely challenged in charges made on the floor of the Senate and given wide publicity. Under the circumstances, the Court averred that a publicly expressed statement of the position of the agency head, announcing personnel action which he planned to take in reference to the charges so widely disseminated to the public, was an appropriate exercise of the discretion which an officer of that rank must possess if the public service was to function effectively. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment.