The constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press require a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice," that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
The two instant libel cases involved the issue of the applicability, to public figures who are not public officials, of the holding of the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v Sullivan, 376 US 254, 11 L ed 2d 686, 84 S Ct 710, 95 ALR2d 1412, requiring, under the constitutional guaranties of freedom of speech and press, a federal rule which prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. In No. 37, the plaintiff, a well-known figure in coaching ranks, brought a libel action against the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, based on an article in defendant's magazine charging him with having "fixed" a football game between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama. At the time of the article plaintiff was the athletic director of the University of Georgia, but was employed by a private corporation and not by the state itself. The trial was completed before the decision in the New York Times Case was handed down, and the only defense was truth, although defendant's counsel were aware of the progress of the latter case. One of the instructions to the jury made the award of punitive damages depend upon a finding of actual malice, defined as encompassing the notion of ill will, spite, hatred, and an intent to injure one, and as also denoting a wanton or reckless indifference or culpable negligence with regard to the rights of others. In No. 150, the plaintiff, a private citizen of some political prominence, instituted a libel action in a Texas state court against the Associated Press for distributing a news dispatch which, in giving an eyewitness account of the riots on the campus of the University of Mississippi in connection with the enforcement by federal marshals of a court decree ordering the enrollment of a Negro as a student, stated that the plaintiff had taken command of the violent crowd, had personally led a charge against federal marshals, and encouraged and advised the rioters.The Court reviewed two cases to consider the impact of its decision that the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and press required a federal rule that prohibited a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proved that the statement was made with "actual malice" on libel actions instituted by persons who were not public officials, but were "public figures" involved in issues in which the public had an important interest.
Should public figures prove the existence of actual malice to recover damages for defamation?
The Court concluded that these libel actions could not be left entirely to state libel laws, unlimited by any overriding constitutional safeguard, but that the rigorous requirements of the Court's decision regarding public officials was not the only appropriate accommodation of the conflicting interests at stake. The Court held that a "public figure" who was not a public official could also recover damages for a defamatory falsehood, whose substance made substantial danger to reputation apparent, on a showing of highly unreasonable conduct that constituted an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers.