424 U.S. 448 (1976), 74-944, Time, Inc. v. Firestone

Docket Nº:No. 74-944
Citation:424 U.S. 448, 96 S.Ct. 958, 47 L.Ed.2d 154
Party Name:Time, Inc. v. Firestone
Case Date:March 02, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 448

424 U.S. 448 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 958, 47 L.Ed.2d 154

Time, Inc.



No. 74-944

United States Supreme Court

March 2, 1976

Argued October 14, 1975



After respondent had sought separate maintenance, her husband, the scion of a wealthy industrial family, filed a counterclaim for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery. The court granted the counterclaim, stating that "neither party is domesticated, within the meaning of that term as used by the Supreme Court of Florida," and that "the marriage should be dissolved." On the basis of newspaper and wire service reports and information from a bureau chief and a "stringer," petitioner published in its magazine an item reporting that the divorce was granted "on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery." After petitioner had declined to retract, respondent brought this libel action in the state court. A jury verdict for damages against petitioner was ultimately affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court. Petitioner claims that the judgment violates its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.


1. The standard enunciated in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, as later extended, which bars media liability for defamation of a public figure absent proof that the defamatory statements were published with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth, is inapplicable to the facts of this case. Pp. 452-457.

(a) Respondent was not a "public figure," since she did not occupy "[a role] of especial prominence in the affairs of society," and had not been "thrust . . . to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved." Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345. Pp. 453-455.

(b) The New York Times rule does not automatically extend to all reports of judicial proceedings regardless of whether the party plaintiff in such proceedings is a public figure who might be assumed to "have voluntarily exposed [himself] to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood." Gertz, supra at 345. There is no substantial reason why one involved in litigation should forfeit that degree of protection afforded by the law of [96 S.Ct. 963] defamation imply by virtue of being drawn into a courtroom. Pp. 455-457.

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2. No finding was ever made by the divorce court that respondent was guilty of adultery as petitioner had reported, and though petitioner contends that it faithfully reproduced the precise meaning of the divorce judgment, the jury's verdict, upheld on appeal, rejected petitioner's contention that the report was accurate. Pp. 457-459.

3. In a case such as this, Gertz, supra, imposes the constitutional limitations that (1) compensatory awards "be supported by competent evidence concerning the injury" and (2) liability cannot be imposed without fault. Since Florida permits damages awards in defamation actions based on elements other than injury to reputation, and there was competent evidence here to permit the jury to assess the amount of such injury, the first of these conditions was satisfied. Pp. 459-461.

4. Since, however, there was no finding of fault on the part of the petitioner in its publication of the defamatory material, the second constitutional limitation imposed by Gertz was not met. Though the trial court's failure to submit the question of fault to the jury does not, of itself, establish noncompliance with the constitutional requirement, none of the Florida courts that considered this case determined that petitioner was at fault. Pp. 461-464.

305 So.2d 172, vacated and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEWART, J., joined, post, p. 464. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 471, WHITE, J., post, p. 481, and MARSHALL, J., post, p. 484, filed dissenting opinions. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner is the publisher of Time, a weekly news magazine. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed a

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$100,000 libel judgment against petitioner which was based on an item appearing in Time that purported to describe the result of domestic relations litigation between respondent and her husband. We granted certiorari, 421 U.S. 909 (1975), to review petitioner's claim that the judgment violates its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


Respondent, Mary Alice Firestone, married Russell Firestone, the scion of one of America's wealthier industrial families, in 1961. In 1964, they separated, and respondent filed a complaint for separate maintenance in the Circuit Court of Palm Beach County, Fla. Her husband counterclaimed for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery. After a lengthy trial, the Circuit Court issued a judgment granting the divorce requested by respondent's husband. In relevant part, the court's final judgment read:

This cause came on for final hearing before the court upon the plaintiff wife's second amended complaint for separate maintenance (alimony unconnected with the causes of divorce), the defendant husband's answer and counterclaim for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery, and the wife's answer thereto setting up certain affirmative defenses. . .

* * * *

According to certain testimony in behalf of the defendant, extramarital escapades of the plaintiff were bizarre and of an amatory nature which would have made Dr. Freud's hair curl. Other testimony, in plaintiff's behalf, would indicate that defendant was guilty of bounding from one bedpartner to another

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with the erotic zest of a satyr. The court is inclined to discount much of this testimony as unreliable. Nevertheless, it is the conclusion and finding of the court that neither party is domesticated within the meaning of that term as used by the Supreme Court of Florida. . . .

* * * *

In the present case, it is abundantly clear from the evidence of marital discord that neither of the parties has shown the least susceptibility to domestication, and that the marriage should be dissolved.

* * * *

The premises considered, it is thereupon


1. That the equities in this cause are with the defendant; that defendant's counterclaim for divorce be and the same is hereby granted, and the bonds of matrimony which have heretofore existed between the parties are hereby forever dissolved.

* * * *

4. That the defendant shall pay unto the plaintiff the sum of $3,000 per month as alimony beginning January 1, 1968, and a like sum on the first day of each and every month thereafter until the death or remarriage of the plaintiff.

App 523-525, 528.

Time's editorial staff, headquartered in New York, was alerted by a wire service report and an account in a New York newspaper to the fact that a judgment had been rendered in the Firestone divorce proceeding. The staff subsequently received further information regarding the Florida decision from Time's Miami bureau chief and from a "stringer" working on a special assignment basis in the Palm Beach area. On the basis of these four sources, Time's staff composed the following item,

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which appeared in the magazine's "Milestones" section the following week:

DIVORCED. By Russell A. Firestone Jr., 41, heir to the tire fortune: Mary Alice Sullivan Firestone, 32, his third wife; a onetime Palm Beach schoolteacher; on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery; after six years of marriage, one son; in West Palm Beach, Fla. The 17-month intermittent trial produced enough testimony of extramarital adventures on both sides, said the judge, "to make Dr. Freud's hair curl."

Within a few weeks of the publication of this article, respondent demanded in writing a retraction from petitioner, alleging that a portion of the article was "false, malicious and defamatory." Petitioner declined to issue the requested retraction.1

Respondent then filed this libel action against petitioner in the Florida Circuit Court. Based on a jury verdict for respondent, that court entered judgment against petitioner for $100,000, and, after review in both the Florida District Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Florida, the judgment was ultimately affirmed. 305 So.2d 172 (1974). Petitioner advances several contentions as to why the judgment is contrary to decisions of this Court holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution limit the authority of state courts to impose liability for damages based on defamation.


Petitioner initially contends that it cannot be liable for publishing any falsehood defaming respondent unless

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it is established that the publication was made "with actual malice," as that term is defined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).2 Petitioner advances two arguments in support of this contention: that [96 S.Ct. 965] respondent is a "public figure" within this Court's decisions extending New York Times to defamation suits brought by such individuals, see, e.g., Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967); and that the Time item constituted a report of a judicial proceeding, a class of subject matter which petitioner claims deserves the protection of the "actual malice" standard even if the story is proved to be defamatorily false or inaccurate. We reject both arguments.

In Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1974), we have recently further defined the meaning of "public figure" for the purposes of the First and Fourteenth Amendments:

For the most part, those who attain this status have assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society. Some occupy...

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