For purposes of a defamation suit, the designation of a public official may rest on either of two alternative bases. In some instances an individual may achieve such pervasive fame or notoriety that he becomes a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts. More commonly, an individual voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues. In either case such persons assume special prominence in the resolution of public questions.
After a police officer had been convicted of murder, the attorney who represented the murder victim's family in a civil suit against the officer, and who attended the coroner's inquest into the victim's death, was discussed in a magazine article which inaccurately (1) portrayed the attorney as an architect of a "frame-up" of the officer, (2) implied that the attorney had a criminal record, and (3) identified the attorney as a "Leninist," a "Communist-fronter," and a former official of a Marxist organization. In the attorney's libel action against the publisher of the magazine, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the District Court submitted the case to the jury under instructions that withdrew from its consideration all issues save the measure of damages. The jury awarded $ 50,000 to plaintiff Gertz. On further reflection the District Court concluded that the First Amendment rule, requiring proof of defendant Robert Welch’s knowledge or reckless disregard of the falsity of the defamatory statements, protected discussion of any public issue without regard to the status of Gertz as a public officer or public figure. Accordingly the court entered judgment n.o.v. for Welch (322 F Supp 997). The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed (471 F2d 801).
Did the district court err in its judgment by applying the New York Times standard to a private individual?
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that Gertz was not a public figure. The state's interest in compensating injury to the reputation of a private individual required a different rule. The Court held that the states could define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injuries to a private individual. The states could not permit recovery of presumed or punitive damages absent a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.