390 U.S. 727 (1968), 517, St. Amant v. Thompson

Docket Nº:No. 517
Citation:390 U.S. 727, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262
Party Name:St. Amant v. Thompson
Case Date:April 29, 1968
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 727

390 U.S. 727 (1968)

88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262

St. Amant



No. 517

United States Supreme Court

April 29, 1968

Argued April 4, 1968



Petitioner made a televised political speech in the course of which he read questions which he had put to a union member, Albin, and Albin's answers; the answers falsely charged respondent, a public official, with criminal conduct. Respondent sued petitioner for defamation, and was awarded damages by the trial judge. The trial judge, having considered New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), decided after the trial, denied a motion for a new trial. An intermediate appellate court reversed the trial court's judgment, having found that petitioner had not acted with actual malice within the meaning of the New York Times rule, i.e., with knowledge that petitioner's statements were false or with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. The State Supreme Court reversed, finding that there had been sufficient evidence that petitioner had acted in "reckless disregard" in that petitioner had no personal knowledge of respondent's activities; relied solely on Albin's affidavit though there was no evidence as to Albin's veracity; failed to verify the information with others who might know the facts; did not consider whether the statements were defamatory, and mistakenly believed that he had no responsibility for the broadcast because he was merely quoting Albin.

Held: In order that it can be found that a defendant, within the meaning of New York Times, acted in "reckless disregard" of whether a defamatory statement which he made about a public official is false or not, there must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant had serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. Pp. 730-733.

(a) In a defamation action by a public official, reckless conduct is not measured by whether a reasonably prudent man would have published the statement or would have investigated before publishing. P. 731.

(b) The people's stake in the conduct of public officials is so great that neither the defense of truth nor the standard of ordinary care would adequately implement First Amendment policies. Pp. 731-732.

(c) A defendant's testimony that he acted in good faith is not conclusive as to that issue, since the factfinder, in the light of all

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the surrounding circumstances. must determine whether the publication was indeed made in good faith. P. 732.

(d) The evidence in this case is not sufficient to permit the conclusion that petitioner acted in reckless disregard of whether the statements about respondent were false or not. Pp. 732-73. .

250 La. 405, 196 So.2d 255, reversed and remanded.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by this case is whether the Louisiana Supreme Court, in sustaining a judgment for damages in a public official's defamation action, correctly interpreted and applied the rule of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), that the plaintiff in such an action must prove that the defamatory publication "was made with `actual malice' -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U.S. at 279-280.

On June 27, 1962, petitioner St. Amant, a candidate for public office, made a televised speech in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the course of this speech, St. Amant read a series of questions which he had put to J. D. Albin, a member of a Teamsters Union local, and Albin's answers to those questions. The exchange concerned the allegedly nefarious activities of E. G. Partin, the president of the local, and the alleged relationship between Partin and St. Amant's political opponent. One of Albin's answers concerned his efforts to prevent Partin from secreting union records; in this answer, Albin referred to Herman A. Thompson, an East Baton Rouge Parish deputy sheriff and respondent here:

Now, we knew that this safe was gonna be moved that night, but imagine our predicament, knowing

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of Ed's connections with the Sheriff's office through Herman Thompson, who made recent visits to the Hall to see Ed. We also knew of money that had passed hands between Ed and Herman Thompson . . . from Ed to Herman. We also knew of his connections with State Trooper Lieutenant Joe Green. We knew we couldn't get any help from there, and we didn't know how far that he was involved in the Sheriff's office or the State Police office through that, and it was out of the jurisdiction of the City Police.1

Thompson promptly brought suit for defamation, claiming that the publication had "impute[d] . . . gross misconduct" and "infer[red] conduct of the most nefarious nature." The case was tried prior to the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra. The trial judge ruled in Thompson's favor and awarded $5,000 in damages. Thereafter, in the course of entertaining and denying a motion for a new trial, the Court considered the ruling in New York Times, finding that rule no barrier to the judgment already entered. The Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed because the record failed to show that St. Amant had acted with actual malice, as required by New York Times. 184 So.2d 314 (1966). The Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed the intermediate appellate [88 S.Ct. 1325] court. 250 La. 405, 196 So.2d 255 (1967). In its view, there was sufficient evidence that St. Amant recklessly disregarded whether the statements about Thompson were true or false. We granted a writ of certiorari. 389 U.S. 1033 (1968).

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For purposes of this case, we accept the determinations of the Louisiana courts that the material published by St. Amant charged Thompson with criminal conduct, that the charge was false, and that Thompson was a public official,2 and so had the burden of proving that the false statements about Thompson were made with actual malice as defined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and later cases. We cannot, however, agree with either the Supreme Court of Louisiana or the trial court that Thompson sustained this burden.

Purporting to apply the New York Times malice standard, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that St. Amant had broadcast false information about Thompson recklessly, though not knowingly. Several reasons were given for this conclusion. St. Amant had no personal knowledge of Thompson's activities; he relied solely on Albin's affidavit, although the record was...

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