In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967), the Supreme Court upheld a libel judgment on behalf of the athletic director at the University of Georgia and gave the Court the opportunity to clarify the First Amendment standard of libel for public figures.
Although a majority agreed that the director, Wally Butts, was a public figure, it also decided that allegations by the Saturday Evening Post that he had fixed a game constituted libel under the standards established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). The Butts case was decided along with Associated Press v. Walker.
Butts says magazine article of game-fixing was untrue, poorly reported
Butts had brought suit against the publisher of the Post after it had run an article charging that he had fixed a football game between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama.
Butts challenged the veracity of the article and accused the magazine of a serious departure from investigative standards. The story was based on information provided by George Burnett, an Atlanta insurance salesman who had claimed to have overheard a phone conversation in which Butts allegedly fixed the game.
Butts submitted evidence at the trial showing that the Post knew Burnett to be on probation and that it had not interviewed a person who had been with Burnett when the phone call was received and had otherwise failed to find independent support for Burnett’s affidavit.
Butts also charged that no one at the Post had viewed the game films or checked for any adjustments in Alabama’s game plans after the allegations of game-fixing were divulged. In addition, the magazine had assigned the story to a writer who was not a football expert and made no attempt to have such an expert check the story.
Lower court charged Post with libel
The district court trial was held prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), but Butts’s case reached the Court after Sullivan. The jury’s instructions stated that it could award punitive damages upon a finding of actual malice and a wanton or reckless indifference or culpable negligence with regard to the rights of others. The jury found there to be libel and awarded Butts $60,000 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages. The award was upheld by the court of appeals.
Supreme Court: Public figures may win libel case under finding of highly unreasonable conduct
A seven-member majority of the Supreme Court considered Butts a public figure based on his position. The Court also noted that the same would be true of a private citizen who through purposeful activities thrust his or her personality into the vortex of an important public controversy.
A majority also held that libel actions against public figures cannot be left entirely to state libel laws, unlimited by First Amendment safeguards. Although the Court voted 5-4 in favor of Butts, it did not reach a majority on its reasoning.
Justice John Marshall Harlan II — who wrote the four-justice plurality opinion for Justices Tom C. Clark, Potter Stewart, and Abe Fortas — concluded that a “public figure” who is not a public official may recover damages for defamatory falsehoods substantially endangering his reputation on a showing of highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers.
Justice Warren believed actual malice should be standard for public figures
Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed that Curtis had libeled Butts, but he believed that the appropriate standard of libel for public figures should be actual malice, which was established for public officials in New York Times v. Sullivan and which Warren believed had been demonstrated by the actions of the Saturday Evening Post.
This article was originally published in 2009. Tom McInnis earned a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in Political Science in 1989. He taught and researched at the University of Central Arkansas for 30 years before retirement. He published two books and multiple articles in the area of civil liberties and the American legal system.