In Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29 (1971), the Supreme Court considered whether the actual malice standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) applies in libel cases involving reports about public issues even when the plaintiff is not a public official or public figure.
Court balanced First Amendment rights against reputation interests
Although the Court held that it did, the high court subsequently rejected that standard in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974). The case represents another attempt by the Supreme Court to balance the First Amendment right of free expression against personal reputation interests of those who feel they have been defamed.
Nudist magazine distributor sued over radio report of his arrest and ‘obscene books’
George Rosenbloom distributed nudist magazines in Philadelphia. He was arrested and charged with possession of obscene literature. After a police officer telephoned local media to inform them of the arrest, radio station WIP, which aired newscasts every half hour, reported that “obscene books” had been seized at Rosenbloom’s storage warehouse. In later reports about Rosenbloom’s legal challenge to his arrest, the station referred to him as a “smut distributor” and “girlie-book peddler.”
Rosenbloom was acquitted of the charges after the jury found that the materials he distributed were not obscene. He then sued the radio station for libel in federal district court. The jury awarded Rosenbloom both general and punitive damages.
On appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that even though Rosenbloom was not a public figure, he nevertheless would be required to meet the Sullivan standard — that the station either knew that what it broadcast was false or acted recklessly in broadcasting it — because his arrest was a matter of public interest.
Court applied actual malice standard because arrest was of public interest
Writing for the plurality, Justice William J. Brennan Jr., joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Harry A. Blackmun, affirmed the concept from the Third Circuit opinion that in order to protect robust debate, the public interest in an event, rather than the status of the individual involved in it, determines the applicable standard of fault. Whether or not the individual had voluntarily thrust himself into the public eye was irrelevant.
“If a matter is a subject of public or general interest, it cannot suddenly become less so merely because a private individual is involved,” Brennan wrote.
Justice Hugo L. Black concurred, urging, as he had in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), that the news media should be immunized from liability even when they knowingly publish falsehoods. Justice Byron R. White also concurred, but on the limited ground that Sullivan clearly applied to reports about the official conduct of the police.
Dissenting justices thought public interest test gave too much discretion to judges
In dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan II rejected Brennan’s “public or general interest test” as granting too much discretion to judges to decide what is newsworthy. He would have imposed a duty of reasonable care on the media when the plaintiff is a private individual, but would limit punitive damages to only those cases where actual malice was proven.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justice Potter Stewart, dissented separately. Like Harlan, Marshall rejected the public interest test. He would have allowed the states to set the fault standard in private figure libel cases but would limit damage awards to “actual losses.”
This article was originally published in 2009. Jane E. Kirtley is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota, where she also directs the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. From 1985-1999, she was the Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She is the author of the Media Law Handbook published by the U.S. State Department.