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Law School Case Brief

Harte-Hanks Commc'ns v. Connaughton - 491 U.S. 657, 109 S. Ct. 2678 (1989)

Rule:

If a false and defamatory statement is published with knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth, the public figure may prevail. A "reckless disregard" for the truth, however, requires more than a departure from reasonably prudent conduct. There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. The standard is a subjective one -- there must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant actually had a high degree of awareness of probable falsity. As a result, failure to investigate before publishing, even when a reasonably prudent person would have done so, is not sufficient to establish reckless disregard. In a case involving the reporting of a third party's allegations, recklessness may be found where there are obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of the informant or the accuracy of his reports.

Facts:

In September 1983, a candidate for a municipal judgeship in Hamilton, Ohio conducted a tape-recorded interview with a witness who made bribery charges against the incumbent judge's court administrator. Based on these charges, the candidate filed a complaint against the administrator, who was subsequently arrested, indicted by a grand jury, and convicted. A grand jury witness, who was the sister of the first witness, told a local newspaper's editorial director and reporter that (1) the candidate had told the two sisters that his purpose in conducting the tape-recorded interview with the first witness was to privately confront the administrator and the incumbent judge and force them into resigning, and (2) the candidate had promised the two sisters that he would pay for a vacation for them, buy a restaurant for their parents to operate, provide the sisters with jobs, and perform other favors for them. The newspaper, which supported the re-election of the incumbent judge, published an editorial on October 30, 1983 predicting that further information concerning the integrity of the candidate and the incumbent might surface in the last few days of the campaign. An article appeared in the newspaper 2 days later in which the grand jury witness was quoted as stating that the candidate had used "dirty tricks" and had offered her and her sister jobs and a vacation in appreciation for their help in the investigation of the administrator. Before this article was published, the newspaper had chosen not to question the first witness or to listen to tape recordings of the interview that had been made available to it by the candidate. The candidate filed a libel action in Federal District Court. After a trial, the jury found that the article was false and defamatory and that it had been published with actual malice, and the candidate was awarded compensatory and punitive damages. The District Court denied a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, concluding that petitioner newspaper: (1) did not attempt to make an independent evaluation of the credibility of conflicting oral testimony concerning the subsidiary facts underlying the jury's finding of actual malice; but instead (2) identified 11 subsidiary facts, comprising the candidate's theory of the case, that the jury could have found; and (3) held that such findings would not have been clearly erroneous and that, based on the Court of Appeals' independent review, such findings, when considered cumulatively, provided clear and convincing evidence of actual malice.

Issue:

Can a showing of "'highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers'" alone support a verdict in favor of a public figure plaintiff in a libel action against a newspaper?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court affirmed, holding that (1) the Court of Appeals judged the case by the correct substantive standard of "actual malice," under which a public figure must prove that a defamatory statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth, even though certain statements in the Court of Appeals' opinion, when read in isolation, appeared to indicate that the Court of Appeals at times substituted a "professional standards" rule under which a public figure would need to make a showing only of highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers for the "actual malice" requirement and at other times inferred actual malice from the newspaper's motive in publishing the article; (2) the Supreme Court's own review of the entire record indicated that the jury must have made certain findings that, when considered alongside the undisputed evidence, led inextricably to the conclusion that the newspaper acted with actual malice; and (3) the Court of Appeals' judgment would accordingly be affirmed even though the case should have been decided on a less speculative ground than what the jury "may" have found.

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