Law School Case Brief
Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. - 680 F.2d 527 (7th Cir. 1982)
The privilege to report on public proceedings permits the reporting of public proceedings in which defamatory statements have been made about private individuals. The privilege also covers republication of reports of an officially-constituted government committee. Defamatory statements made in the course of these proceedings are privileged as long as the republication is accurate and complete or a fair abridgement of such proceedings. The privilege may be overcome, however, by a showing that the publication was motivated by actual malice. Thus, a publisher is liable if he knew at the time when the statement was published that it was false, or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.
American Opinion, a monthly magazine, published an article regarding Elmer Gertz, a well-known reputable Chicago Attorney. According to the article, Gertz was one of the members of the Communist conspiracy to undermine local police so as to pave the way for a national police force which would support and enforce a Communist dictatorship. Gertz was also identified as counsel to the commission which authored Dissent and Disorder, a report on the April, 1968, demonstrations in Chicago which was critical of police conduct. The assertion that Gertz was a Communist or part of a Communist conspiracy was false. When Gertz learned of the article, he filed the present diversity suit for defamation in the Northern District of Illinois. In a pre-trial ruling, the trial court held that the libelous words published by the defendant constituted libel per se. A jury awarded the compensatory and punitive damages. American Opinion challenged the judgment, arguing that the district court erred in submitting the issue of actual malice to the jury and in not directing a verdict in the attorney's favor based on conditional privilege.
- Was the publication regarding Gertz covered by conditional privilege?
- Did the district court err in awarding damages to Gertz?
The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that Gertz had established by sufficient evidence that the newspaper had acted negligently and with actual malice in publishing the false statements about him. The Court held that Gertz's claim of actual malice was not precluded by the law of the case from previous proceedings and found that he had established malice sufficiently to overcome the newspaper's claim of conditional privilege. According to the Court, the establishment of actual malice allowed the jury to award punitive damages to the attorney. In affirming the judgment, the Court ruled that the evidence supported the attorney's claim that he had suffered actual injury and, therefore, it was proper for the jury to award him compensatory damages.
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