|Rosenbloom v. Metromedia
415 F.2d 892, affirmed.
[ Brennan ]
[ Black ]
[ White ]
[ Harlan ]
[ Marshall ]
Rosenbloom v. Metromedia
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, dissenting.
The very facts of this case demonstrate that uncritical acceptance of the Pennsylvania libel law here involved would be inconsistent with those important First and Fourteenth Amendment values we first treated with in an analogous context in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). However, as the plurality opinion implicitly recognizes, only an undiscriminating assessment of those values would lead us to extend the New York Times rule in full force to all purely private libels. My Brother BRENNAN's opinion would resolve the dilemma by distinguishing those private libels that arise out of events found to be of "public or general concern" from those that do not, and subjecting the former to full-scale application of the New York Times rule.
For the reasons set forth in Part I of my Brother MARSHALL's dissent, I cannot agree to such a solution. As he so well demonstrates, the principal failing of the plurality opinion is its inadequate appreciation of the limitations imposed by the legal process in accommodating the tension between state libel laws and the federal constitutional protection given to freedom of speech and press. [p63]
Once the evident need to balance the values underlying each is perceived, it might seem, purely as an abstract matter, that the most utilitarian approach would be to scrutinize carefully every jury verdict in every libel case, in order to ascertain whether the final judgment leaves fully protected whatever First Amendment values [n1] transcend the legitimate state interest in protecting the particular plaintiff who prevailed. This seems to be what is done in the plurality opinion. But we did not embrace this technique in New York Times, supra. Instead, as my Brother MARSHALL observes, we there announced a rule of general application, not ordinarily dependent for its implementation upon a case-by-case examination of trial court verdicts. See also my dissent in Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 293 (1971). Nor do I perceive any developments in the seven years since we decided New York Times, supra, that suggest our original method should now be abandoned. At least where we can discern generally applicable rules that should balance with fair precision the competing interests at stake, such rules should be preferred to the plurality's approach both in order to preserve a measure of order and predictability in the law that must govern the daily conduct of affairs and to avoid subjecting the press to judicial second-guessing of the newsworthiness of each item they print. Consequently, I fully concur in Part I of MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL's dissent. [p64]
Further, I largely agree with the alternative proposals of that dissent. I, too, think that, when dealing with private libel, the States should be free to define for themselves the applicable standard of care so long as they do not impose liability without fault; that a showing of actual damage should be a requisite to recovery for libel; and that it is impermissible, given the substantial constitutional values involved, to fail to confine the amount of jury verdicts in such cases within any ascertainable limits. However, my reasons for so concluding are somewhat different than his, and I therefore reach a different result than he does with respect to the tolerable limits of punitive damages.
I think we all agree on certain core propositions. First, as a general matter, the States have a perfectly legitimate interest, exercised in a variety of ways, in redressing and preventing careless conduct, no matter who is responsible for it, that inflicts actual, measurable injury upon individual citizens. Secondly, there is no identifiable value worthy of constitutional protection in the publication of falsehoods. Third, although libel law provides that truth is a complete defense, that principle, standing alone, is insufficient to satisfy the constitutional interest in freedom of speech and press. For we have recognized that it is inevitable that there will be "some error in the situation presented in free debate," Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 406 (1967) (opinion of this writer), a process that needs "breathing space," NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 433 (1963), to flourish, and that "putting to the preexisting prejudices of a jury the determination of what is ‘true' may effectively institute a system of censorship." Time, Inc. v. Hill, supra, at 406.
Moreover, any system that punishes certain speech is likely to induce self-censorship by those who would otherwise [p65] exercise their constitutional freedom. Given the constitutionally protected interest in unfettered speech, it requires an identifiable, countervailing state interest, consistent with First Amendment values, to justify a regulatory scheme that produces such results. And, because the presence of such values dictates closer scrutiny of this aspect of state tort law than the Fourteenth Amendment would otherwise command, it may well be that certain rules, impervious to constitutional attack when applied to ordinary human conduct, may have to be altered or abandoned where used to regulate speech. Finally, as determined in New York Times, the constitutional interest in tolerance of falsehood, as well as the need to adjust competing societal interests, prohibit, at a minimum, the imposition of liability without fault.
The precise standard of care necessary to achieve these goals is, however, a matter of dispute, as is the range of penalties a State may prescribe for a breach of that standard. In analyzing these problems, it is necessary to begin with a general analytical framework that defines those competing interests that must be reconciled. My Brother MARSHALL's opinion, I think, dwells too lightly upon the nature of the legitimate countervailing interests promoted by the State's libel law, and, as a result, overstates the case against punitive damages. Because we deal with a set of legal rules that treat truth as a complete defense, it strikes, I think, somewhat wide of the mark to treat the State's interest as one of protecting reputations from "unjustified invasion." Post at 78. By hypothesis, the respondent here was free to reveal any true facts about petitioner's "obscure private life." [n2] [p66]
Given the defense of truth, it is my judgment that, in order to assure that it promotes purposes consistent with First Amendment values, the legitimate function of libel law must be understood as that of compensating individuals for actual, measurable harm caused by the conduct of others. This can best be demonstrated by postulating a law that subjects publishers to jury verdicts for falsehoods that have done the plaintiff no harm. In my view, such a rule can only serve a purpose antithetical to those of the First Amendment. It penalizes speech not to redress or avoid the infliction of harm, but only to deter the press from publishing material regarding private behavior that turns out to be false simply because of its falsity. This the First Amendment will not tolerate. Where the State cannot point to any tangible danger, even knowingly erroneous publication is entitled to constitutional protection because of the interest in avoiding an inquiry into the mere truth or falsity of speech. Moreover, such a scheme would impose a burden on speaking not generally placed upon constitutionally unprotected conduct -- the payment of private fines for conduct which, although not conformed to established limits of care, causes no harm in fact.
Conversely, I think that, where the purpose and effect of the law are to redress actual and measurable injury to private individuals that was reasonably foreseeable as a result of the publication, there is no necessary conflict with the values of freedom of speech. Just as an automobile, negligently driven, can cost a person his physical and mental wellbeing and the fruits of his labor, so can a printing press, negligently set. While the First Amendment protects the press from the imposition of special liabilities upon it,
[t]o exempt a publisher, because of the nature of his calling, from an imposition generally exacted from other members of the community would be to extend a protection not required by the constitutional [p67] guarantee.
Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 160 (1967) (opinion of this writer). A business
is not immune from regulation because it is an agency of the press. The publisher of a newspaper has no special immunity from the application of general laws. He has no special privilege to invade the rights and liberties of others.
Associated Press v. NLRB, 301 U.S. 103, 132-133 (1937). That the damage has been inflicted by words, rather than other instrumentalities, cannot insulate it from liability. States may legitimately be required to use finer regulatory tools where dealing with "speech," but they are not wholly disabled from exacting compensation for its measurable adverse consequences. If this is not so, it is difficult to understand why governments may, for example, proscribe "misleading" advertising practices or specify what is "true" in the dissemination of consumer credit advertisements.
Nor does this interest in compensating victims of harmful conduct somehow disappear when the damages inflicted are great. So long as the effect of the law of libel is simply to make publishers pay for the harm they cause, and the standard of care required is appropriately adjusted to take account of the special countervailing interests in an open exchange of ideas, the fact that this may involve the payment of substantial sums cannot plausibly be said to raise serious First Amendment problems. If a newspaper refused to pay its bills because to do so would put it out of business, would the First Amendment dictate that this be treated as a partial or complete defense? If an automobile carrying a newsman to the scene of a history-making event ran over a pedestrian, would the size of the verdict, if based upon generally applicable tort law principles, have to be assessed against the probability that it would deter broadcasters from news gathering before it could pass muster under the First Amendment? [p68]
However, without foreclosing the possibility that other limiting principles may be surfaced by subsequent experience, I do think that, since we are dealing, by hypothesis, with infliction of harm through the exercise of freedom of speech and the press to which the Constitution gives explicit protection, recoverable damages must be limited to those consequences of the publication which are reasonably foreseeable. The usual tort rule seems to be that, once some foreseeable injury has been inflicted, the negligent defendant must compensate for all damages he proximately caused in fact, no matter how peculiar were the circumstances of the particular plaintiff involved. W. Prosser, The Law of Torts § 50 (3d ed.1964). However, our cases establish, I think, that, unless he has knowledge to the contrary, a speaker is entitled to presume that he is addressing an audience that is not especially susceptible to distress at the specter of open, uninhibited, robust speech. Cohen v. California, ante, p. 15. See also Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969); Butler v. Michigan, 352 U.S. 380 (1957). Thus, I think the speaker should be free from a duty to compensate for actual harm inflicted by his falsehoods where the defamation would not have caused such harm to a person of average sensibilities unless, of course, the speaker knew that his statements were made concerning an unusually sensitive person. In short, I think the First Amendment does protect generally against the possibility of self-censorship in order to avoid unwitting affronts to the frail and the queasy.
Of course, it does not follow that, so long as libel law performs the same compensatory function as civil law generally, it is necessarily legitimate in all its various applications. The presence of First Amendment values means that the State can be compelled to utilize finer, [p69] more discriminating instruments of regulation where necessary to give more careful protection to these countervailing interests. New York Times, supra, and Curtis Publishing Co., supra, established that, where the injured party is a "public figure" or a "public official," the interest in freedom of speech dictates that the States forgo their interest in compensating for actual harm, even upon a basis generally applicable to all members of society, unless the plaintiff can show that the injurious publication was false and was made "with ‘actual malice' -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." New York Times, supra, at 280. Tacitly recognizing that it would unduly sacrifice the operative legitimate state interests to extend this rule to all cases where the injured party is simply a private individual, the plurality opinion would nevertheless apply it where the publication concerned such a person's "involvement in an event of public or general concern." Ante at 52. I would not overrule New York Times or Curtis Publishing Co., and I do agree, as indicated above, that making liability turn on simple falsity in the purely private libel area is not constitutionally permissible. But I would not construe the Federal Constitution to require that the States adhere to a standard other than that of reasonable care where the plaintiff is an ordinary citizen.
My principal concern with the plurality's view, of course, is that voiced by my Brother MARSHALL. However, even if this objection were not tenable, unlike the plurality, I do think there is a difference, relevant to the interests here involved, between the public and the private plaintiff, as our cases have defined these categories, and that maintaining a constitutional distinction between them is at least as likely to protect true First Amendment concerns as one that eradicates such a line and substitutes for it a distinction between matters we think are of true social significance and those we think are not. [p70]
To begin, it does no violence, in my judgment, to the value of freedom of speech and press to impose a duty of reasonable care upon those who would exercise these freedoms. I do not think it can be gainsaid that the States have a substantial interest in encouraging speakers to carefully seek the truth before they communicate, as well as in compensating persons actually harmed by false descriptions of their personal behavior. Additionally, the burden of acting reasonably in taking action that may produce adverse consequences for others is one generally placed upon all in our society. Thus, history itself belies the argument that a speaker must somehow be freed of the ordinary constraints of acting with reasonable care in order to contribute to the public good while, for example, doctors, accountants, and architects have constantly performed within such bounds.
This does not mean that I do not agree with the rule of New York Times, supra, but only that I deem it inapplicable here. That rule was not, I think, born solely of a desire to free speech that would otherwise have been stifled by overly restrictive rules, but also rested upon a determination that the countervailing state interests, described above, were not fully applicable where the subject of the falsehood was a public official or a public figure. For me, it does seem quite clear that the public person has a greater likelihood of securing access to channels of communication sufficient to rebut falsehoods concerning him than do private individuals in this country who do not toil in the public spotlight. Similarly, our willingness to assume that public personalities are more impervious to criticism, and may be held to have run the risk of publicly circulated falsehoods concerning them, does not rest solely upon an empirical assertion of fact, but also upon a belief that, in our political system, the individual speaker is entitled to act upon such an assumption if our institutions are to be held [p71] up, as they should be, to constant scrutiny. And, at least as to the "public official," it seems to be universally the case that he is entitled to an absolute immunity for what he may utter in response to the charges of others. Where such factors are present, the need to provide monetary compensation for defamation appears a good deal more attenuated. Finally, in light of the plurality opinion's somewhat extravagant delineation of the public interest involved in the dissemination of information about nonpublic persons, it bears emphasizing that a primary rationale for extending the New York Times rule to public figures was the desire to reflect, in the constitutional balance, the fact that, "in this country, the distinctions between governmental and private sectors are blurred," Curtis Publishing Co., supra, at 163 (opinion of Warren, C.J.), and to treat constitutional values as specially implicated where important, albeit nonofficial, policy and behavior were the subjects of discussion. At the very least, this tends to diminish the force of any contention that libelous depictions of nonpublic persons are often likely to involve matters of abiding public significance.
I cannot agree that the First Amendment gives special protection to the press from "[t]he very possibility of having to engage in litigation," ante at 52 (opinion of BRENNAN, J.). Were this assertion tenable, I do not see why the States could ever enforce their libel laws. Cf. my Brother BLACK's opinion, ante at 57. Further, it would certainly cast very grave doubts upon the constitutionality of so-called "right-of-reply statutes" advocated by the plurality, ante at 47 n. 15, and ultimately treat the application of any general law to a publisher or broadcaster as an important First Amendment issue. The notion that such an interest, in the context of a purely private libel, is a significant independent constitutional value is an unfortunate consequence of the plurality's [p72] single-minded devotion to the task of preventing self-censorship, regardless of the purposes for which such restraint is induced or the evils is exercise tends to avoid.
It is, then, my judgment that the reasonable care standard adequately serves those First Amendment values that must inform the definition of actionable libel, and that those special considerations that made even this standard an insufficiently precise technique when applied to plaintiffs who are "public officials" or "public figures" do not obtain where the litigant is a purely private individual.
There remains the problem of punitive damages. [n3] No doubt my Brother MARSHALL is correct in asserting that the specter of being forced to pay out substantial punitive damage awards is likely to induce self-censorship. This would probably also be the case where the harm actually caused is likely to be great. But, as I indicated above, this fact, in itself, would not justify construing the First Amendment to impose an arbitrary limitation on the amount of actual damages recoverable. Thus, as my Brother MARSHALL would apparently agree -- since he, too, proposes no limitation on actual damages -- one cannot jump from the proposition that fear of substantial punitive damage awards may be an important factor in [p73] inducing self-censorship directly to the result that punitive damages cannot be assessed in all private libel cases. A more particularized inquiry into the nature of the competing interests involved is necessary in order to ascertain whether awarding punitive damages must inevitably, in private libel cases, serve only interests that are incompatible with the First Amendment.
At a minimum, even in the purely private libel area, I think the First Amendment should be construed to limit the imposition of punitive damages to those situations where actual malice is proved. This is the typical standard employed in assessing anyone's liability for punitive damages where the underlying aim of the law is to compensate for harm actually caused, see, e.g., 3 L. Frumer et al., Personal Injury § 2.02 (1965); H. Oleck, Damages to Persons and Property § 30 (1955), and no conceivable state interest could justify imposing a harsher standard on the exercise of those freedoms that are given explicit protection by the First Amendment.
The question then arises whether further limitations on this general state power must be imposed in order to serve the particularized goals of the First Amendment. The most compelling rationale for providing punitive damages where actual malice is shown is that such damages assure that deterrent force is added to the jury's verdict. If the speaker's conduct was quite likely to produce substantial harm, but fortuitously did not, simple assessment of actual damages will not fully reflect the social interest in deterring that conduct generally. Further, even if the harm done was great, the defendant may have unusually substantial resources that make the award of actual damages a trivial inconvenience of no actual deterrent value. And even where neither of these factors obtains, the State always retains an interest in punishing more severely conduct that, although it causes the same effect, is more morally blameworthy. For example, consider [p74] the distinction between manslaughter and first-degree murder.
I find it impossible to say, at least without further judicial experience in this area, that the First Amendment interest in avoiding self-censorship will always outweigh the state interest in vindicating these policies. It seems that a legislative choice is permissible which, for example, seeks to induce, through a reasonable monetary assessment, repression of false material, published with actual malice, that was demonstrably harmful and reasonably thought capable of causing substantial harm, but, in fact, was not so fully injurious to the individual attacked. Similarly, the State surely has a legitimate interest in seeking to assure that its system of compensating victims of negligent behavior also operates upon all as an inducement to avoidance of such conduct. And these are burdens that are placed on all members of society, thus permitting the press to escape them only if its interest is somehow different in this regard.
However, from the standpoint of the individual plaintiff, such damage awards are windfalls. They are, in essence, private fines levied for purposes that may be wholly unrelated to the circumstances of the actual litigant. That fact alone is not, I think, enough to condemn them. The State may, as it often does, use the vehicle of a private lawsuit to serve broader public purposes. It is noteworthy that my Brother MARSHALL does not rest his objection to punitive damages upon these grounds. He fears, instead, the self-censorship that may flow from the unbridled discretion of juries to set the amount of such damages. I agree that, where these amounts bear no relationship to the actual harm caused, they then serve essentially as springboards to jury assessment, without reference to the primary legitimating compensatory function of the system, of an infinitely wide range of penalties wholly unpredictable in amount at the time of the publication, [p75] and that this must be a substantial factor in inducing self-censorship. Further, I find it difficult to fathom why it may be necessary, in order to achieve its justifiable deterrence goals, for the States to permit punitive damages that bear no discernible relationship to the actual harm caused by the publication at issue. A rational determination of the injury a publication might potentially have inflicted should typically proceed from the harm done in fact. And where the compensatory scheme seeks to achieve deterrence as a subsidiary byproduct, the desired deterrence, if not precisely measured by actual damages, should be informed by that touchstone if deterrence of falsehood is not to replace compensation for harm as the paramount goal. Finally, while our legal system does often mete out harsher punishment for more culpable acts, it typically begins with a gradation of offenses defined in terms of effects. Compare, for example, larceny with murder. It is not surprising, then, that most States apparently require that punitive damages in most private civil actions bear some reasonable relation to the actual damages awarded, Oleck, at § 275, Pennsylvania included, Weider v. Hoffman, 238 F.Supp. 437, 444-447 (MD Pa.1965).
However, where the amount of punitive damages awarded bears a reasonable and purposeful relationship to the actual harm done, I cannot agree that the Constitution must be read to prohibit such an award. Indeed, as I understand it, my Brother MARSHALL's objection to my position [n4] is not that the interest in freedom of speech dictates eliminating such judgments, but that this result [p76] is compelled by the need to avoid involving courts in an "ad hoc balancing" of "the content of the speech and the surrounding circumstances," post at 86, 85, much like that undertaken today in Part VI of the plurality opinion, the same technique criticized in my dissent in Time, Inc. v. Pape, supra. I find this argument unpersuasive. First, I do not see why my proposed rule would necessarily require frequent judicial reweighing of the facts underlying each jury verdict. A carefully and properly instructed jury should ordinarily be able to arrive at damage awards that are self-validating. It is others, not I, who have placed upon the federal courts the general duty of reweighing jury verdicts regarding the degree of fault demonstrated in libel actions. Further, to the extent that supervision of jury verdicts would be required it would entail a different process from that undertaken where judges redetermine the degree of fault. The defendant's resources, the actual harm suffered by the plaintiff, and the publication's potential for actual harm are all susceptible of more or less objective measurement. And the overriding principle that deterrence is not to be made a substitute for compensation should serve as a useful mechanism for adjusting the equation. Finally, even if some marginal "ad hoc balancing" becomes necessary, I should think it the duty of this Court at least to attempt to implement such a process before preempting, for itself, all state power in this regard. [n5] [p77]
In sum, given the fact that it seems to reflect the majority rule that most of our jurisprudence proceeds upon the premise that legislative purposes can be achieved by fitting the punishment to the crime, and since we deal here with a precise constitutional interest that may legitimately require the States to resort to more discriminating regulation within a more circumscribed area of permissible concern, I would hold unconstitutional, in a private libel case, jury authority to award punitive damages which is unconfined by the requirement that these awards bear a reasonable and purposeful relationship to the actual harm done. Conversely, where the jury authority has been exercised within such constraints, and the plaintiff has proved that the speaker acted out of express malice, given the present state of judicial experience, I think it would be an unwarranted intrusion into the legitimate legislative processes of the States, and an impermissibly broad construction of the First Amendment, to nullify that state action.
Because the Court of Appeals adjudicated this case upon principles wholly unlike those suggested here, I [p78] would vacate the judgment below and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with the views expressed herein.
1. Of course, for me, this case presents a Fourteenth, not a purely First, Amendment issue, for the question is one of the constitutionality of the applicable Pennsylvania libel laws. However, I have found it convenient, in the course of this opinion, occasionally to speak directly of the First Amendment as a shorthand phrase for identifying those constitutional values of freedom of expression guaranteed to individuals by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
2. I would expressly reserve, for a case properly presenting it, the issue whether the New York Times rule should have any effect on "privacy" litigation. The problem is briefly touched upon in Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 404-405 (1967) (HARLAN, J., concurring and dissenting).
3. The conclusions I reach in Part III of this opinion are somewhat different from those I embraced four Terms ago in Curtis Publishing Co., supra, at 159-161. Where matters are in flux, however, it is more important to re-think past conclusions than to adhere to them without question, and the problem under consideration remains in a state of evolution, as is attested to by all the opinions filed today. Reflection has convinced me that my earlier opinion painted with somewhat too broad a brush, and that a more precise balancing of the conflicting interests involved is called for in this delicate area.
4. Of course, I do not envision that, consistently with my views, the States could only exact some predetermined multiple of the actual damages found. I should think a jury could simply be instructed, along the lines set out in my opinion, on the legitimate uses of the punitive damage award and the necessity for relating any such judgment to the harm actually done.
5. The plurality opinion States that the "real thrust" of my position is that it "will not ‘constitutionalize' the factfinding process." Ante at 53. In fact, I have attempted to demonstrate throughout this opinion that I believe the position of my Brothers BRENNAN, BLACK, and MARSHALL all, in varying degrees, overstate the extent to which libel law is incompatible with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, and have pointed out that I think my view have merit "even if [the objection noted in my Brother MARSHALL's opinion] were not tenable." Supra at 69. Moreover, the assertion that an inquiry into whether actual damages were suffered "will involve judges even more deeply in factfinding," ante at 53, than ascertaining whether "the defendant, in fact, entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication," ante at 56, or whether the publication involved "an event of public or general concern," ante at 52, seems to me to carry its own refutation. The former focuses on measurable, objective fact; the latter upon subjective, personal belief. Finally, I cannot see why juries may not typically be entrusted responsibly to determine whether a publisher was negligent, a function they perform in judging the harmful conduct of most other members of society, or why it should be materially more difficult for judges to oversee such decisions where a speaker, rather than any other actor, is a defendant.