443 U.S. 157 (1979), 78-5414, Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 78-5414
Citation:443 U.S. 157, 99 S.Ct. 2701, 61 L.Ed.2d 450
Party Name:Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
Case Date:June 26, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 157

443 U.S. 157 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 2701, 61 L.Ed.2d 450

Wolston

v.

Reader's Digest Association, Inc.

No. 78-5414

United States Supreme Court

June 26, 1979

Argued April 17, 1979

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

As a result of a grand jury investigation, during 1957 and 1958, of Soviet intelligence agents in the United States, petitioner's aunt and uncle were arrested on, and later pleaded guilty to, espionage charges. In the ensuing months, petitioner, pursuant to grand jury subpoenas, traveled from his home in the District of Columbia to New York City, where the grand jury was sitting, but on one occasion he failed to respond to a subpoena, having previously attempted unsuccessfully to persuade law enforcement authorities not to require him to travel because of his mental condition. A Federal District Judge then issued an order to show cause why petitioner should not be adjudged in criminal contempt of court. Petitioner appeared in court on the return date of this order and offered to testify before the grand jury, but the offer was refused, and thereafter he pleaded guilty to the contempt charge when his pregnant wife became hysterical upon being called to testify as to his mental condition. Petitioner received a suspended sentence. These events were reported in a number of stories in the Washington and New York newspapers, but the publicity subsided following petitioner's sentencing, and he succeeded, for the most part, in returning to the private life he had led prior to such events. In 1974, respondent Reader's Digest Association published a book written by respondent Barron, which describes the Soviet Union's espionage organization and chronicles its activities since World War II. The book was later published by the other respondent publishers. In one passage in the book, petitioner is named as "[a]mong Soviet agents identified in the United States" and "convicted of . . . contempt charges following espionage indictments," and the index lists petitioner as a "Soviet agent in U.S." Petitioner sued respondents, claiming that the above passages in the book were false and defamatory. The District Court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment, holding that petitioner was a "public figure" because, by failing to appear before the grand jury and subjecting himself to a citation for contempt, he "became involved in a controversy of a decidedly public nature in a way that invited attention and comment, and

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thereby created in the public an interest in knowing about his connection with espionage"; that the First Amendment therefore precluded recovery unless petitioner proved that respondents had published a defamatory falsehood with "actual malice"; and that the evidence raised no genuine issue with respect to the existence of "actual malice." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Petitioner was not a public figure within the meaning of this Court's defamation cases, and therefore was not required by the First Amendment to meet the "actual malice" standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, in order to recover from respondents. Pp. 163-169.

(a) Contrary to respondents' argument and the lower courts' holdings, petitioner does not fall within the category of those public figures who have "thrust themselves 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. Neither the mere fact that petitioner voluntarily chose not to appear before the grand jury, knowing that this might be attended by publicity, the citation for contempt, nor the simple fact that his failure to appear and the contempt citation attracted media attention, rendered him such a public figure. His failure to appear was in no way calculated to draw attention to himself in order to invite public comment or influence the public with respect to any issue, but rather appears simply to have been the result of his poor health. And there is no evidence that his failure to appear was intended to have, or did in fact have, any effect on any issue of public concern. Pp. 165-168.

(b) A person who engages in criminal conduct does not automatically become a public figure for purposes of comment on a limited range of issues relating to his conviction. Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448. To hold otherwise would create an "open season" for all who sought to defame persons convicted of a crime. Pp. 168-169.

188 U.S.App.D.C. 185, 578 F.2d 427, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 169. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 172.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1974, respondent Reader's Digest Association, Inc., published a book entitled KGB, the Secret Work of Soviet Agents (KGB), written by respondent John Barron.1 The book describes the Soviet Union's espionage organization and chronicles its activities since World War II. In a passage referring to disclosures by "royal commissions in Canada and Australia, and official investigations in Great Britain and the United States," the book contains the following statements relating to petitioner Ilya Wolston:

Among Soviet agents identified in the United States were Elizabeth T. Bentley, Edward Joseph Fitzgerald, William Ludwig Ullmann, William Walter Remington, Franklin Victor Reno, Judith Coplon, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Morton Sobell, William Perl, Alfred Dean Slack, Jack Soble, Ilya Wolston, Alfred and Martha Stern.*

* No claim is made that this list is complete. It consists of Soviet agents who were convicted of espionage or falsifying information or perjury and/or contempt charges following espionage indictments, or who fled to the Soviet bloc to avoid prosecution. . . .

App. 28 (emphasis supplied). In addition, the index to KGB lists petitioner as follows: "Wolston, Ilya, Soviet agent in U.S." Id. at 9.

Petitioner sued the author and publishers of KGB in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia,

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claiming that the passages in KGB stating that he had been indicted for espionage and had been a Soviet agent were false and defamatory. The District Court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment. 429 F.Supp. 167 (1977) The court held that petitioner was a "public figure," and that the First Amendment therefore precluded recovery unless petitioner proved that respondents had published a defamatory falsehood with "`actual malice' -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not," New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 280 (1964). 429 F.Supp. at 172, 176. While the District Court agreed that the above-quoted portions of KGB appeared to state falsely that petitioner had been indicted for espionage, it ruled, on the basis of affidavits and deposition testimony, that the evidence raised no genuine issue with respect to the existence of "actual malice" on the part of respondents. Id. at 180-181. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed. 188 U.S.App.D.C. 185, 578 F.2d 427 (1978).2

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We granted certiorari, 439 U.S. 1066 (1979), and we now reverse. We hold that the District Court and the Court of Appeals were wrong in concluding that petitioner was a public figure within the meaning of this Court's defamation cases. Petitioner therefore was not required by the First Amendment to meet the "actual malice" standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra, in order to recover from respondents.3

During 1957 and 1958, a special federal grand jury sitting in New York City conducted a major investigation into the activities of Soviet intelligence agents in the United States. As a result of this investigation, petitioner's aunt and uncle, Myra and Jack Soble, were arrested in January, 1957, on charges of spying. The Sobles later pleaded guilty to espionage charges, and, in the ensuing months, the grand jury's investigation focused on other participants in a suspected Soviet espionage ring, resulting in further arrests, convictions, and

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guilty pleas. On the same day the Sobles were arrested, petitioner was interviewed by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at his home in the District of Columbia.4 Petitioner was interviewed several more times during the following months in both Washington and in New York City, and traveled to New York on various occasions pursuant to grand Jury subpoenas.

On July 1, 1958, however, petitioner failed to respond to a grand jury subpoena directing him to appear on that date. Petitioner previously had attempted to persuade [99 S.Ct. 2705] law enforcement authorities not to require him to travel to New York for interrogation because of his state of mental depression. App. 91 (affidavit of petitioner, June 15, 1976).5 On July 14, a Federal District Judge issued an order to show cause why petitioner should not be held in criminal contempt of court. These events immediately attracted the interest of the news media, and on July 15 and 16, at least seven news stories focusing on petitioner's failure to respond to the grand jury subpoena appeared in New York and Washington newspapers.

Petitioner appeared in court on the return date of the show cause order and offered to testify before the grand jury, but

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the offer was refused. A hearing then commenced on the contempt charges. Petitioner's wife, who then was pregnant, was called to testify as to petitioner's mental condition at the time of the return date of the subpoena, but after she became hysterical on the witness stand,...

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