Law School Case Brief
Braun v. Flynt - 726 F.2d 245 (5th Cir. 1984)
Where public officials seek damages for libel there must be a showing of publication with "actual malice", that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. A showing of mere negligence in publishing an untruthful and defamatory article would no longer suffice to support damages in libel actions brought by a public official. The U.S. Supreme Court extended the "actual malice" standard to defamation cases brought by public figures. Various definitions of what constitutes a public figure are offered. Public figures include those who have assumed an influential role in ordering society or one who has relinquished his or her interest in the protection of his or her own good name. Also, public figures include those who are intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions, or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large.
Plaintiff amusement park performer brought a suit against defendant publisher after discovering that a picture of her, taken during her act, was published in defendant's hard-core men's magazine. Plaintiff sought damages for defamation and invasion of privacy, and the jury ruled in her favor on both counts. The jury awarded actual and punitive damages to plaintiff for invasion of privacy and defamation. Defendant appealed.
In an action by plaintiff amusement park performer against defendant publisher for defamation and invasion of privacy, could plaintiff recover double damages rather than a single recovery?
The United States Court of Appeals explained that whether a publisher acted with malice is a jury question. The jury here found that defendant-appellant's publication Chic had acted in reckless disregard for plaintiff-appellee performer's reputation in publishing her picture. The Court found that the jury's conclusion that Chic acted with malice toward plaintiff was strongly supported by the evidence that Chic employees misrepresented the nature of the magazine in order to obtain transparencies of the picture for publication. The Court rejected defendant's argument that it had obtained consent, because consent obtained through deceit was not a valid consent. It also rejected defendant's argument that it was entitled to the heightened protection under U.S. Const. amend. I applicable to public figures. Here, plaintiff was not a public figure; rather, she was a private individual that did not relinquish interest in protecting her name and reputation by force of her limited role as an entertainer. Finally, the jury had a right to determine whether defendant portrayed plaintiff in a false light in view of the entire publication.
However, the Court vacated the damages awards and remanded the case for retrial on the issue of damages. The Court found that the elements constituting the basis of actual damages under each complaint were not sufficiently distinguished to assure that there was no double compensation. The Court found the punitive damages to be appropriate because defendant-appellant publisher had deceptively obtained the pictures. However, with respect to punitive damages awarded for loss of reputation, the Court was persuaded beyond any doubt that they duplicated those awarded for invasion of privacy.
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