The Supreme Court decision in Ocala Star-Banner Co. v. Damron, 401 U.S. 295 (1971), helped clarify the Court’s landmark libel decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) by showing how the “actual malice” test of that case extended to individuals running for public office.
Florida newspaper published false story about mayor
A Florida newspaper had published a story alleging that Leonard Damron, a local mayor who was running for county tax assessor, had been charged in federal court with perjury. The story was false as regards Leonard; it was true, however, in respect to his brother. Damron sued for libel. At trial the judge instructed jurors that they did not need to consider whether a libel had been committed but only damages. The jury’s award of damages was upheld by a Florida district court of appeal, and the Florida Supreme Court denied review.
Court said lower court should have used actual malice test
In a decision authored by Justice Potter Stewart, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that instead of classifying the article as “libelous, per se,” the lower court should have applied the actual malice test of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The Court observed that the article at issue was not merely a “private” libel issue as held by the Florida courts; rather, it was a public issue because it clearly related to the fitness of a candidate for public office. Thus, using the actual malice test, Damron would have had to show that the paper had published its story with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.
In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Byron R. White observed, “The sole basis for protecting publishers who spread false information is that otherwise the truth would too often be suppressed.”
Justice Hugo L. Black filed a concurring decision in a companion case, Time, Inc. v. Pape (1971), joined by Justice William O. Douglas, arguing that the First Amendment was designed to leave the press free from libel judgments.
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.