Phila. Newspapers v. Hepps

475 U.S. 767, 106 S. Ct. 1558 (1986)



When the speech is of public concern and the plaintiff is a public official or public figure, the Constitution clearly requires the plaintiff to surmount a much higher barrier before recovering damages from a media defendant than is raised by the common law.


Appellee brought suit for libel and defamation in connection with newspaper stories run by appellant. Appellee challenged the ruling that he had the burden of proving the falsity of the statements, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, holding the appellant had the burden of proving the statements were true. On review the Supreme Court found that in order to avoid a chilling effect on U.S. Const. amend. I's protection of true speech, a private figure plaintiff must bear the burden of showing that the speech at issue was false before recovering damages for defamation from a media defendant. 


Can the private-figure plaintiff recover damages without showing that the statements at issue are false?




In a case such as this one, where a newspaper publishes speech of public concern about a private figure, the private-figure plaintiff cannot recover damages without also showing that the statements at issue are false. Because in such a case the scales are in an uncertain balance as to whether the statements are true or false, the Constitution requires that the scales be tipped in favor of protecting true speech. To ensure that true speech on matters of public concern is not deterred, the common-law presumption that defamatory speech is false cannot stand. While Pennsylvania's "shield law," which allows employees of the media to refuse to divulge their sources, places a heavier burden on appellees, the precise scope of that law is unclear and, under these circumstances, it does not appear that such law requires a different constitutional standard than would prevail in the absence of such law. 

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