403 U.S. 29 (1971), 66, Rosenbloom v. Metromedia

Docket Nº:No. 66
Citation:403 U.S. 29, 91 S.Ct. 1811, 29 L.Ed.2d 296
Party Name:Rosenbloom v. Metromedia
Case Date:June 07, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

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403 U.S. 29 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1811, 29 L.Ed.2d 296




No. 66

United States Supreme Court

June 7, 1971

Argued December 7, 1970




Respondent's radio station, which broadcast news reports every half hour, broadcast news stories of petitioner's arrest for possession of obscene literature and the police seizure of "obscene books," and stories concerning petitioner's lawsuit against certain officials alleging that the magazines he distributed were not obscene and seeking injunctive relief from police interference with his business. These latter stories did not mention petitioner's name, but used the terms "smut literature racket" and "girlie-book peddlers." Following petitioner's acquittal of criminal obscenity charges, he filed this diversity action in District Court seeking damages under Pennsylvania's libel law. The jury found for petitioner and awarded $25,000 in general damages; and $725,000 in punitive damages, which was reduced by the court on remittitur to $250,000. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, standard applied, and "the fact that plaintiff was not a public figure cannot be accorded decisive significance."

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 40-62.

[91 S.Ct. 1813] 415 F.2d 892, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, concluded that the New York Times standard of knowing or reckless falsity applies in a state civil libel action brought by a private individual for a defamatory falsehood uttered in a radio news broadcast about the individual's involvement in an event of public or general interest. Pp. 40-57.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK concluded that the First Amendment protects the news media from libel judgments even when statements are made with knowledge that they are false. P. 57.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE concluded that, in the absence of actual malice as defined in New York Times, supra, the First Amendment gives the news media a privilege to report and comment upon the official actions of public servants in full detail, without sparing from public view the reputation or privacy of an individual involved in or affected by any official action. Pp. 59-62.

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BRENNAN, J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined. BLACK, J., post, p. 57, and WHITE, J., post, p. 57, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. HARLAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 62. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which STEWART, J., joined, post, p. 78. DOUGLAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN join.

In a series of cases beginning with New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Court has considered the limitations upon state libel laws imposed by the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. New York Times held that in a civil libel action by a public official against a newspaper those guarantees required clear and convincing proof that a defamatory falsehood alleged as libel was uttered with "knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." Id. at 280. The same requirement was later held to apply to "public figures" who sued in libel on the basis of alleged defamatory falsehoods. The several cases considered since New York Times involved actions of "public officials" or "public figures," usually, but not always, against newspapers or magazines.1 Common [91 S.Ct. 1814] to all the cases was a

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defamatory falsehood in the report of an event of "public or general interest."2 The instant case presents the question whether the New York Times' "knowing or reckless falsity standard" applies in a state civil libel action brought not by a "public official" or a "public figure," but by a private individual for a defamatory falsehood uttered in a news broadcast by a radio station about the individual's involvement in an event of public or general

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interest.3 The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that the New York Times standard did not apply. and that Pennsylvania law determined respondent's liability in this diversity case, 289 F.Supp. 737 (1968). The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the New York Times standard did apply, and reversed the judgment for damages awarded to petitioner by the jury. 415 F.2d 892 (1969). We granted certiorari, 397 U.S. 904 (1970). We agree with the Court of Appeals, and affirm that court's judgment.


In 1963, petitioner was a distributor of nudist magazines in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. During the fall of that year, in response to citizen complaints, the Special Investigations Squad of the Philadelphia Police Department initiated a series of enforcement actions under the city's obscenity laws. The police, under the command of Captain Ferguson, purchased various magazines from more than 20 newsstands throughout the city. Based upon Captain Ferguson's determination that the magazines were obscene,4 police, on October 1, 1963, arrested most of the newsstand operators5 on charges of selling obscene material. While the police were making an arrest at one newsstand, petitioner arrived to deliver some of his nudist magazines, and was immediately arrested

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along with the newsboy.6 Three days later, on October 4, the police obtained a warrant to search petitioner's home and the rented barn he used as a warehouse, and seized the inventory of magazines and books found at these locations. Upon learning of the seizures, petitioner, who had been released on bail after his first arrest, surrendered to the police and was arrested for a second time.

Following the second arrest, Captain Ferguson telephoned respondent's radio station WIP and another local radio station, a wire service, and a local newspaper to inform them of the raid on petitioner's home and of his arrest. WIP broadcast news reports every half hour to the Philadelphia metropolitan area. These news programs ran either five or ten minutes, and generally contained from six to twenty different items that averaged [91 S.Ct. 1815] about thirty seconds each. WIP's 6 p.m. broadcast on October 4, 1963, included the following item:

City Cracks Down on Smut Merchants

The Special Investigations Squad raided the home of George Rosenbloom in the 1800 block of Vesta Street this afternoon. Police confiscated 1,000 allegedly obscene books at Rosenbloom's home and arrested him on charges of possession of obscene literature. The Special Investigations Squad also raided a barn in the 20 Hundred block of Welsh Road near Bustleton Avenue and confiscated 3,000 obscene books. Capt. Ferguson says he believes they have hit the supply of a main distributor of obscene material in Philadelphia.

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This report was rebroadcast in substantially the same form at 6:30 p.m., but at 8 p.m., when the item was broadcast for the third time, WIP corrected the third sentence to read "reportedly obscene." News of petitioner's arrest was broadcast five more times in the following twelve hours, but each report described the seized books as "allegedly" or "reportedly" obscene. From October 5 to October 21, WIP broadcast no further reports relating to petitioner.

On October 16, petitioner brought an action in Federal District Court against various city and police officials and against several local news media.7 The suit alleged that the magazines petitioner distributed were not obscene, and sought injunctive relief prohibiting further police interference with his business, as well as further publicity of the earlier arrests. The second series of allegedly defamatory broadcasts related to WIP's news reports of the lawsuit. There were ten broadcasts on October 21, two on October 25, and one on November 1. None mentioned petitioner by name. The first, at 6:30 a.m. on October 21, was pretty much like those that followed:

Federal District Judge Lord, will hear arguments today from two publishers and a distributor all seeking an injunction against Philadelphia Police Commissioner Howard Leary . . . District Attorney James C. Crumlish . . . a local television station and a newspaper . . . ordering them to lay off the smut literature racket.

The girlie-book peddlers say the police crackdown

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and continued reference to their borderline literature as smut or filth is hurting their business. Judge Lord refused to issue a temporary injunction when he was first approached. Today he'll decide the issue. It will set a precedent . . . and if the injunction is not granted . . . it could signal an even more intense effort to rid the city of pornography.

On October 27, petitioner went to WIP's studios after hearing from a friend that the station had broadcast news about his lawsuit. Using a lobby telephone to talk with a part-time newscaster, petitioner inquired what stories WIP had broadcast about him. The newscaster asked him to be more specific about dates and times. Petitioner then asked for the noon news broadcast on October 21, 1963, which the newscaster read to him over the phone; it was similar to the above 6:30 a.m. broadcast. According to petitioner, the ensuing interchange was brief. Petitioner told the newscaster that his magazines were "found to be completely legal and legitimate by the United States Supreme Court." When the newscaster replied the district attorney had said the magazines were obscene, petitioner countered that he had a public statement of the district attorney declaring the magazines legal. At that point, petitioner testified, "the telephone conversation was terminated. [91 S.Ct. 1816] . . . He just...

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