398 U.S. 6 (1970), 413, Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v. Bresler

Docket Nº:No. 413
Citation:398 U.S. 6, 90 S.Ct. 1537, 26 L.Ed.2d 6
Party Name:Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v. Bresler
Case Date:May 18, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

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398 U.S. 6 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1537, 26 L.Ed.2d 6

Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc.



No. 413

United States Supreme Court

May 18, 1970

Argued February 24-25, 1970



At public meetings before the Greenbelt, Maryland, City Council, the efforts of respondent, a prominent real estate developer and state legislator, to secure zoning variances for certain land he owned while the city was trying to acquire other land of his on which to build a school were vigorously discussed. In publishing in their newspaper full accounts of the meetings, petitioners reported that various citizens had characterized respondent's negotiating position as "blackmail." Respondent, concededly a "public figure," brought this libel action against petitioners for publishing the reports notwithstanding their knowledge that he had not committed the crime of blackmail. The trial judge instructed the jury that respondent could recover if petitioners' publications had been made with malice (defined as including "spite, hostility, or deliberate intention to harm") or reckless disregard of whether they were true or false, and that malice could be found from the "language" of the publication itself. The jury found for respondent, and the judgment was affirmed on appeal.


1. The trial court's instructions, which permitted the jury to find liability merely on the basis of the reported hostile remarks made during a debate on a public issue, violated the First Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, whether respondent is considered to be a "public official" or a "public figure." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254; Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130. Pp. 8-11.

2. In the circumstances of this case, where it is undisputed that petitioners' reports of the meetings were accurate, the word "blackmail" was not slanderous when spoken, or libelous when reported by petitioners, as there is no evidence whatsoever that the word was used to impute a crime to respondent or was intended as more than a vigorous epithet. Pp. 11-14.

253 Md. 324, 252 A.2d 755, reversed and remanded.

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STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners are the publishers of a small weekly newspaper, the Greenbelt News Review, in the city of Greenbelt, Maryland. The respondent Bresler is a prominent local real estate developer and builder in Greenbelt, and was, during the period in question, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates from a neighboring district. In the autumn of 1965, Bresler was engaged in negotiations with the Greenbelt City Council to obtain certain zoning variances that would allow the construction of high-density housing on land owned by him. At the same time, the city was attempting to acquire another tract of land owned by Bresler for the construction of a new high school. Extensive litigation concerning compensation for the school site seemed imminent unless there should be an agreement on its price between Bresler and the city authorities, and the concurrent negotiations obviously provided both parties considerable bargaining leverage.

These joint negotiations evoked substantial local controversy, and several tumultuous city council meetings were held at which many members of the community freely expressed their views. The meetings were reported at length in the news columns of the Greenbelt News Review. Two news articles in consecutive weekly editions of the paper stated that, at the public meetings, some people had characterized Bresler's negotiating position as "blackmail." The word appeared several times,

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both with and without quotation marks, and was used once a a subheading within a news story.1

Bresler reacted to these news articles by filing the present lawsuit for libel, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. The primary thrust of his complaint was that the articles, individually and along with other items published in the petitioners' newspaper, imputed to him the crime of blackmail. The case went to trial, and the jury awarded Bresler $5,000 in compensatory damages and $12,500 in punitive damages. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the [90 S.Ct. 1539] judgment. 253 Md. 324, 252 A.2d 755. We granted certiorari to consider the constitutional issues presented. 396 U.S. 874.

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, we held that the Constitution permits a "public official" to recover money damages for libel only if he can show that the defamatory publication was not only false but was uttered with "`actual malice' -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Id. at 280. In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, we dealt with the constitutional restriction upon a libel suit brought by a "public figure."

In the present case, Bresler's counsel conceded in his opening statement to the jury that Bresler was a public figure in the community. This concession was clearly correct. Bresler was deeply involved in the future development of the city of Greenbelt. He had entered into agreements with the city for zoning variances in the past, and was again seeking such favors to permit the construction of housing units of a type not contemplated in the original city plan. At the same time, the city was trying to obtain a tract of land owned by Bresler for the purpose

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of building a school. Negotiations of significant public concern were in progress, both with school officials and the city council. Bresler's status thus clearly fell within even the most restrictive definition of a "public figure." Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, supra, at 154-155 (opinion of HARLAN, J.). See also Pauling v. Globe-Democrat Publishing Co., 362 F.2d 188, 195-196, cert. denied, 388 U.S. 909.

Whether as a state legislator representing another county, or for some other reason, Bresler was a "public official" within the meaning of the New York Times rule is a question we need not determine. Cf. Time, Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374, 390; Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 n. 12. For the instructions to the jury in this case permitted a finding of liability under an impermissible constitutional standard, whichever status Bresler might be considered to occupy. In his charge to the members of the jury, the trial judge repeatedly instructed them that Bresler could recover if the petitioners' publications had been made with malice or with a reckless disregard of whether they were true or false. This instruction was given in one form or another half a dozen times during the course of the judge's charge.2

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The judge then defined "malice" to include "spite, hostility or deliberate intention to harm." Moreover, he instructed the jury that [90 S.Ct. 1540] "malice" could be found from the "language" of the publication itself.3 Thus, the jury was permitted to find liability merely on the basis of a combination of falsehood and general hostility.

This was error of constitutional magnitude, as our decisions have made clear.

This definition of malice is constitutionally insufficient where discussion of public affairs is concerned; "[w]e held in New York Times that a public official might be allowed the civil remedy only if he establishes that the utterance was false and that it was made with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of whether it was false or true."

Rosenblatt v. Baer, supra, at 84.

[E]ven where the utterance is false, the great principles of the Constitution which secure freedom of expression in this area preclude attaching adverse consequences to any except the knowing or reckless falsehood. Debate on public issues will not be uninhibited if the speaker must run the risk that it

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will be proved in court that he spoke out of hatred. . . .

Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 73. See also Beckley Newspapers Corp. v. Hanks, 389 U.S. 81, 82. And the constitutional prohibition in this respect is no different whether the plaintiff be considered a "public official" or a "public figure." Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, supra.

The erroneous instructions to the jury would, therefore, alone be enough to require the reversal of the judgment before us. For when "it is impossible to know, in view of the general verdict returned" whether the jury imposed liability on a permissible or an impermissible ground, "the judgment must be reversed and the case remanded." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra, at 284. See Time, Inc. v. Hill, supra, at 394-397; Rosenblatt v. Baer, supra, at 82; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 367-368.

This, however, does not end the inquiry. As we noted in New York Times,

[t]his Court's duty is not limited to the elaboration of constitutional principles; we must also in proper cases review the evidence to make certain that those principles have been constitutionally applied. . . . We must "make an independent examination of the whole record,". . . so as to assure ourselves that the judgment does not constitute a forbidden intrusion on the field of free expression.

376 U.S. at 285.

This case involves newspaper reports of public meetings of the citizens of a community concerned with matters of local governmental interest and importance. The very subject matter of the news reports, therefore, is one of particular First Amendment concern.

The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be obtained by lawful means . . . is a fundamental principle of our constitutional system.

Stromberg v. California,

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supra, at 369.

Freedom of discussion, if it would fulfill its historic function in this nation, must embrace all issues about which information is needed or appropriate to...

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