Henry v. Collins, 380 U.S. 356 (1965), reversed a libel conviction of an individual who had criticized two public officials. The Supreme Court relied in Henry on the argument that the lower courts had not met the actual malice standard that the Court had established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). The decision thus continued to affirm that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech required public figures to meet a high bar in proving that they had been libeled.
Henry claimed arrest was a ‘plot’
A jury in Coahoma County, Mississippi, had granted a libel judgment on behalf of a county attorney and a city police chief after Aaron Henry, charged with disturbing the peace, claimed that his arrest was “the result of a diabolical plot” in which the two men were involved. The judge had instructed the jury that it could “infer malice from the falsity and libelous nature of the statement.”
Court said Henry had not libeled police
In a per curiam decision, the Court cited the actual malice requirement established for libel of public figures in Sullivan and reaffirmed in Garrison v. Louisiana (1964). It required that public figures could only establish actual malice by showing that a derogatory statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
Justices Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, and Arthur Goldberg concurred in the judgment in Henry, focusing not merely on the jury instructions but on their belief that the First Amendment prohibited “any libel judgment solely because of … criticism against respondents’ performance of their public duties.”
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.