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Gertz v. Robert Welch, 418 U.S. 323

United States Supreme Court










Public Figures and Private Plaintiffs

Quick Notes

Welch published an article accusing Gertz of being a communist in a conspiracy against the police. 

Book Name

Torts Cases, Problems, And Exercises.  Weaver, Third Edition.  ISBN:  978-1-4224-7220-0.



o         Whether a newspaper or broadcaster that publishes defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is neither a public official not a public figure may claim a constitutional privilege against liability for the injury inflicted by those statements?  No, but a States rights are limited to compensatory damages.  You need to prove knowledge of falsity or recklessness for punitive damages.




o         Judgment for Welch.


o         Reversed and Remanded.





o         Pl - Gertz

o         Df - Robert Welch

What happened?

o         Gertz was representing a family who son was killed by a Chicago policeman.

o         Welch publishes the American Opinion.

American Opinion

o         It contained conspiracy views discrediting law enforcement and the police force was capable of supporting a communist dictatorship.

o         It contained an article that the Officer was framed and the testimony against him was false.

o         Furthermore, his prosecution was part of the Communist campaign against the police.

o         Welch portrayed Gertz Leninist, a former Communist and an official of the Marxist League for Industrial Democracy.

Article Inaccuracies

o         Gertz had not criminal record.

o         Gertz did not plan any demonstrations.

o         No basis to be called a Leninist or communist.

o         Editor made not effort to verify the charges against Gertz.

District Court Ruling

o         For Welch, because he was a private individual.

Rule Of Law

1.       The standard of liability for a defamation which a publisher or broadcaster publishes about a private individual is set by the states.

2.       The private defamation plaintiff must prove falsity or reckless disregard for the truth to recover any punitive damages other than compensatory for actual injury.


First Remedy Self Help

o         Using available opportunities to contradict the lie or correct the error and thereby to minimize its adverse impact on reputation.

o         Public Officials have great access to channels than a private individual

o         Private individuals are therefore more vulnerable to injury, and the state interest in protecting them is correspondingly greater.


Public Official Reasoning

o         An individual who decides to seek governmental office must accept certain necessary consequences of that involvement in public affairs.

o         Few personal attributes are more germane to fitness for office than dishonesty, malfeasance, or improper motivation, even though these characteristics may also affect the official's private character.


Become A Public Figure by no action of his own

o         By accident he obtained prominence

o         By occupying positions of persuasion

o         If they can influence the resolution of a public controversy then they invite attention and comment.

o         The communications media are entitled to act on the assumption that public officials and public figures have voluntarily exposed themselves to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood concerning them.


Private Individual Rule and Test Argument

o         No such assumption is justified with respect to a private individual.

o         He has not accepted public office or assumed an "influential role in ordering society."

o         He has relinquished no part of his interest in the protection of his own good name,

o         He has a more compelling call on the courts for redress of injury inflicted by defamatory falsehood.

o         Private individuals are not only more vulnerable to injury than public officials and public figures; they are also more deserving of recovery.


Courts New York Times Extension to Private Citizens Unacceptable

o         Add difficulty of forcing state and federal judges to decide on an ad hoc basis which publications address issues of "general or public interest".

o         The "public or general interest" test for determining the applicability of the New York Times standard to private defamation actions inadequately serves both of the competing values at stake.




Holding #1 A State can impose liability with fault

o         So long as the State does not impose liability without fault, the States may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual.


Holding #2 Compensatory and Punitive Recovery

o         This State interest extends no further than compensation for actual injury.

o         The States may not permit recovery of presumed or punitive damages, at least when liability is not based on a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.  (Permitted when knowledge of falsity or recklessness is show).


Defamation Common Law

o         It allows recovery of purportedly compensatory damages without evidence of actual loss.

o         The existence of injury is presumed from the fact of publication.


State Remedies Are Grounded by the First Amendment

o         States remedies for defamatory falsehood reach no farther than are necessary to protect the legitimate interest.

o         Restricts defamation plaintiffs who do not prove knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth to compensation for actual injury.

o         All awards must be supported by competent evidence concerning the injury, although there need be no evidence which assigns an actual dollar value to the injury.

o         Competent Evidence - Impairment of reputation and standing in the community, personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering


Punitive Damages No State Justification

o         Juries use discretion selectively to punish unpopular opinions.

o         The States interest justifies a negligence standard for private defamation.

o         This is a less demanding standard than proving NYT actual malice.


Df Arg #1 Gertz was a public official

o         No basis, he was only on a hosing committee for a short period of time.


Df Arg #2 Gertzs conorers inquest appearance rendered him the "de facto public official."

o         We decline.  This would make all lawyers public officials.


Df Arg #3 Gertz was a public figure

o         He did not game general fame or notoriety in the community.

o         His role was minimal at the coroners inquest.

o         Took not part in criminal trial.

o         Never discussed any litigation with the press.

o         Did not thrust himself into the public issue.


Reversed Trial Court, Remanded




o         The important public policy which underlies this tradition -- the right to counsel -- would be gravely jeopardized if every lawyer who takes an "unpopular" case, civil or criminal, would automatically become fair game for irresponsible reporters and editors who might, for example, describe the lawyer as a "mob mouthpiece" for representing a client with a serious prior criminal record, or as an "ambulance chaser" for representing a claimant in a personal injury action.




o         The jury is unpredictable.

o         It is only the publisher who will engage in discussion in the fact of such risk.

o         The courts stands increase the risk.

o         The First and the Fourthteen amendments prohibit damages discussion public affairs.





o         Matters of public or general interest do not "suddenly become less so merely because a private individual is involved or because in some sense the individual did not 'voluntarily' choose to become involved."

o         The very  possibility of having to engage in litigation, an expensive and protracted process, is threat enough to cause discussion and debate to 'steer far wider of the unlawful zone' thereby keeping protected discussion from public cognizance






Class Notes

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

o        Private Figures, Media Defendant, Matters of Public Concern


          Negligence is Required

         There has to be at least negligence on behalf of the media defendant for a cause of action.

          This is not strict liability (no liability without fault).

          There must be at least negligence


          Punitive and Presumed Damages

         There CANNOT be punitive damages or presumed damages, UNLESS the Pl proves actual malice.

          The Df knew the statement was false, OR

          Made it with reckless disregard of whether it was false.


States Interest

o         To allow an individual a remedy who interest where injured because of defamation.


Private Individual + Media Defendant + Public Concern Rule

o         The private individual needs to prove negligence only.

o         He does not have to prove actual malice.


***** Public Figure (He keeps saying this phrase)*****

         Injecting oneself into the vortex of public opinion


o         Can a state say you have to prove actual malice?  Yes. There is a minimal level that states have to provide, they can go above, but not below.