385 U.S. 374 (1967), 22, Time, Inc. v. Hill

Docket Nº:No. 22
Citation:385 U.S. 374, 87 S.Ct. 534, 17 L.Ed.2d 456
Party Name:Time, Inc. v. Hill
Case Date:January 09, 1967
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 374

385 U.S. 374 (1967)

87 S.Ct. 534, 17 L.Ed.2d 456

Time, Inc.



No. 22

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 9, 1967

Argued April 27, 1966

Reargued October 18-19, 1966



Appellee, Hill, and his family, in 1952, were held hostage in their home by some escaped convicts, and were ultimately released unharmed without any violence having occurred. They later moved away, and appellee discouraged further publicity efforts about the incident, which had caused extensive involuntary notoriety. A novel about a hostage incident, but depicting considerable violence, later appeared, and was subsequently made into a play, these portrayals having been shaped by several incidents. Appellant's magazine, Life, published an account of the play, relating it to the Hill incident, describing the play as a reenactment, and using as illustrations photographs of scenes staged in the former Hill home. Alleging that the Life article gave the knowingly false impression that the play depicted the Hill incident, appellee sued for damages under a New York statute providing a cause of action to a person whose name or picture is used by another without consent for purposes of trade or advertising. Appellant maintained that the article concerned a subject of general interest, and was published in good faith. The trial court instructed the jury that liability under the statute depended upon a finding that the Life article was published not to disseminate news, but as a fictionalized version of the Hill incident and for the purpose of advertising the play or increasing the magazine's circulation. The court also instructed the jury that punitive damages were justified if the jury found that the appellant falsely connected Hill with the play knowingly or through failure to make a reasonable investigation, and that personal malice need not be found if there was reckless or wanton disregard of Hill's rights. The jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages. Though liability was sustained on appeal, the Appellate Division ordered a new trial as to damages, at which only compensatory damages were awarded, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The New York courts have limited the reach of the statute as applied to reports of newsworthy persons or events, and have made it clear since reargument here that truth is a complete defense. (Spahn v. Julian Messner, Inc., 18

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N.Y.2d 324, 221 N.E.2d 543 (1966)). However, the New York courts allow recovery under the statute when such reports are "fictitious."


1. Constitutional protections for free expression preclude applying New York's statute to redress false reports of newsworthy matters absent proof that the publisher knew of their falsity or acted in reckless disregard of the truth. Cf. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254. Pp. 380-391.

(a) Erroneous statements about a matter of public interest, like the opening of a new play linked to an actual incident, which was the subject of the Life article, are inevitable, and, if innocent or merely negligent, must be protected if "freedoms of expression are to have the `breathing space' that they 'need to survive. . . .'" Id. at 271-272. Pp. 388-389.

(b) But constitutional guarantees of free expression can tolerate sanctions against calculated falsehood without impairment of their essential function. P. 389.

2. Since the evidence in this case would support a jury finding either (1) that appellant's inaccurate portrayal of the Hill incident was innocent or merely negligent or (2) that it was recklessly untrue or knowingly false, the trial court's failure properly to instruct the jury that a verdict of liability could be predicated only on a finding of knowing or reckless falsity in the publication of the Life article constituted reversible error. Pp. 391-397.

3. A declaration would be unwarranted that the New York statute is unconstitutional on its face even if construed by the New York courts to impose liability without proof of knowing or reckless falsity, because the New York courts have been assiduous to construe the statute to avoid invasion of freedom of speech and of the press. P. 397.

15 N.Y.2d 986, 207 N.E.2d 604, reversed and remanded.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether appellant, publisher of Life Magazine, was denied constitutional protections of speech and press by the application by the New York courts of §§ 551 of the New York Civil Rights Law1 to award appellee damages on allegations

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that Life falsely reported that a new play portrayed an experience suffered by appellee and his family.

The article appeared in Life in February, 1955. It was entitled "True Crime Inspires Tense Play," with the subtitle, "The ordeal of a family trapped by convicts gives Broadway a new thriller, `The Desperate Hours.'" The text of the article reads as follows:

Three years ago, Americans all over the country read about the desperate ordeal of the James Hill family, who were held prisoners in their home outside Philadelphia by three escaped convicts. Later, they read about it in Joseph Hayes' novel, The Desperate Hour, inspired by the family's experience. Now they can see the story reenacted in Hayes' Broadway play based on the book, and next year will see it in his movie, which has been filmed but is being held up until the play has a chance to pay off.

The play, directed by Robert Montgomery and expertly acted, is a heart-stopping account of how a family rose to heroism in a crisis. LIFE photographed the play during its Philadelphia tryout, transported some of the actors to the actual house where the Hills were besieged. On the next page, [87 S.Ct. 537] scenes from the play are reenacted on the site of the crime.

The pictures on the ensuing two pages included an enactment of the son being "roughed up" by one of the convicts, entitled "brutish convict," a picture of the

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daughter biting the hand of a convict to make him drop a gun, entitled "daring daughter," and one of the father throwing his gun through the door after a "brave try" to save his family is foiled.

The James Hill referred to in the article is the appellee. He and his wife and five children involuntarily became the subjects of a front-page news story after being held hostage by three escaped convicts in their suburban Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, home for 19 hours on September 11-12, 1952. The family was released unharmed. In an interview with newsmen after the convicts departed, appellee stressed that the convicts had treated the family courteously, had not molested them, and had not been at all violent. The convicts were thereafter apprehended in a widely publicized encounter with the police which resulted in the killing of two of the convicts. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Connecticut. The appellee discouraged all efforts to keep them in the public spotlight through magazine articles or appearances on television.

In the spring of 1953, Joseph Hayes' novel, The Desperate Hours, was published. The story depicted the experience of a family of four held hostage by three escaped convicts in the family's suburban home. But, unlike Hill's experience, the family of the story suffer violence at the hands of the convicts; the father and son are beaten and the daughter subjected to a verbal sexual insult.

The book was made into a play, also entitled The Desperate Hours, and it is Life's article about the play which is the subject of appellee's action. The complaint sought damages under §§ 551 on allegations that the Life article was intended to, and did, give the impression that the play mirrored the Hill family's experience, which, to the knowledge of defendant ". . . was false and untrue." Appellant's defense was that

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the article was "a subject of legitimate news interest," "a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public" at the time of publication, and that it was "published in good faith without any malice whatsoever. . . ." A motion to dismiss the complaint for substantially these reasons was made at the close of the case, and was denied by the trial judge on the ground that the proofs presented a jury question as to the truth of the article.

The jury awarded appellee $50,000 compensatory and $25,000 punitive damages. On appeal, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court ordered a new trial as to damages, but sustained the jury verdict of liability. The court said as to liability:

Although the play was fictionalized, Life's article portrayed it as a reenactment of the Hills' experience. It is an inescapable conclusion that this was done to advertise and attract further attention to the play, and to increase present and future magazine circulation as well. It is evident that the article cannot be characterized as a mere dissemination of news, nor even an effort to supply legitimate newsworthy information in which the public had, or might have a proper interest.

18 App.Div.2d 485, 489, 240 N.Y.S.2d 286, 290. At the new trial on damages, a jury was waived and the court awarded $30,000 compensatory damages, without punitive damages.2

[87 S.Ct. 538] The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division "on the majority and concurring opinions

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at the Appellate Division," two judges dissenting. 15 N.Y.2d 986, 207 N.E.2d 604. We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeal to consider the important constitutional questions of freedom of speech and press involved. 382 U.S. 936. After argument last Term, the case was restored to the docket for reargument, 384 U.S. 995. We reverse and remand the case to the Court of Appeals for further...

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