In Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279 (1971), the Supreme Court dismissed a conviction against Time magazine, finding that the magazine did not engage in “falsification” sufficient to find “actual malice.”
Pape sued Time for libel
A Chicago police officer, Frank Pape, sued the publisher Time, Inc. for libel for an article that had summarized a report issued by the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In describing the ambiguous report, which had included a sensational account describing Pape violating the Fourth Amendment rights of an African American family, Pape claimed Time had failed to note that the Commission had referred to the accounts of police brutality as “alleged.”
The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said that this was enough to allow a jury to conclude that the magazine had run afoul of the “actual malice” standard that the Court had established in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), requiring that an individual alleging libel in a story about a public figure had to show that the publisher acted with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case.
Court said jury could not have found actual malice
Writing for six members of the Court, Justice Potter Stewart argued that a jury could not properly have found actual malice to have been present. Stewart observed that “[t]o permit the malice issue to go to the jury because of the omission of a word like ‘alleged,’ despite the context of that word in the Commission Report and the external evidence of the Report’s overall meaning, would be to impose a much stricter standard of liability on errors of interpretation or judgment than on errors of historic fact.”
Justice Hugo L. Black, joined by Justice William O. Douglas, concurred with his opinion in the companion case of Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy (1971), in which he indicated that he would have opposed all libel laws as violating the First Amendment.
Justice John Marshall Harlan II, by contrast, would have affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. He did not think that appellate courts should be second-guessing the judgments of trial courts in cases where judges had properly instructed jurors to apply the actual malice test.
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.