474 U.S. 953 (1985), 84-1731, Lorain Journal Co. v. Milkovich

Docket Nº:No. 84-1731
Citation:474 U.S. 953, 106 S.Ct. 322, 88 L.Ed.2d 305
Party Name:The LORAIN JOURNAL CO. et al. v. Michael MILKOVICH, Sr.
Case Date:November 04, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 953

474 U.S. 953 (1985)

106 S.Ct. 322, 88 L.Ed.2d 305

The LORAIN JOURNAL CO. et al.

v.

Michael MILKOVICH, Sr.

No. 84-1731

United States Supreme Court.

November 4, 1985

OPINION

[106 S.Ct. 322] On Petition for Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Ohio.

The petition for writ of certiorari is denied.

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

Error and misstatement are inevitable in any scheme of truly free expression and debate. Because punishment of error may [106 S.Ct. 323] induce a cautious and restrained exercise of the freedoms of speech and press, the fruitful exercise of these essential freedoms requires a degree of "breathing space." NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 433, 83 S.Ct. 328, 338, 9 L.Ed.2d 405 (1963). Accordingly, "we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 341, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3007, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974); see also St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 732, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1326, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 (1968). The New York Times actual malice

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standard defines the level of constitutional protection appropriate in the context of defamation of a public official. It rests on our "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270, 84 S.Ct. 710, 721, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967), the New York Times standard was extended to statements criticizing "public figures" because we recognized that " 'public figures,' like 'public officials,' often play an influential role in ordering society" and that therefore "[o]ur citizenry has a legitimate and substantial interest in the conduct of such persons, and freedom of the press to engage in uninhibited debate about their involvement in public issues and events is as crucial as it is in the case of 'public officials.' " 388 U.S., at 164, 87 S.Ct., at 1996 (Warren, C.J., concurring in result). In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., supra, we limited the applicability of the New York Times standard by holding that "so long as they do not impose liability without fault, the States may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual." 418 U.S., at 347, 94 S.Ct., at 3024 (footnote omitted).

In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court found Gertz rather than New York Times applicable to respondent Milkovich's libel suit against petitioners. Ostensibly, then, the issue presented in this petition is simply the narrow one whether petitioners will be required to pay damages upon a showing of negligence or actual malice. However, by allowing damages to be awarded upon a showing of negligence, thereby diminishing the "breathing space" allowed for free expression in the New York Times case, the decision in Gertz exacerbated the likelihood of self-censorship with respect to reports concerning "private individuals." See 418 U.S., at 365-368, 94 S.Ct., at 3020-3021 (BRENNAN, J., dissenting). Consequently, the rules we adopt to determine an individual's status as "public" or "private" powerfully affect the manner in which the press decides what to publish and, more importantly, what not to publish. In finding New York Times inapplicable, the Ohio Supreme Court read the "public official" and "public figure" doctrines in an exceptionally narrow way that is sure to restrict expression by the press in Ohio. Its decision is especially unfortunate in that it most affects reporting by local papers about the local controversies that constitute their primary content. Moreover, it is these local papers that are most coerced by the threat of libel damages

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since they can least afford the expense of damages awards. I therefore dissent and would grant certiorari in order to review this important constitutional question.

I

On February 9, 1974, a melee occurred at a high school wrestling match between Maple [106 S.Ct. 324] Heights and Mentor High Schools; several wrestlers were injured, four of them requiring treatment at a hospital. The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) conducted a hearing into the occurrence and censured Michael Milkovich, the Maple Heights coach and a teacher at the high school, for his conduct in encouraging the brawl. In addition, the OHSAA placed the Maple Heights team on probation for the school year and declared it ineligible to compete in the state wrestling tournament. Ted Diadiun, a sports columnist for the News-Herald of Willoughby, Ohio, attended and reported on both the match and the hearing.

A group of parents and wrestlers subsequently filed suit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, alleging that the OHSAA had denied the team due process and seeking to reverse the declaration of ineligibility. Milkovich, though not a party to this lawsuit, appeared as a witness for the plaintiffs. On January 7, 1975, the court held that the wrestling team had been denied due process and enjoined the team's suspension.

The next day, Diadiun wrote another column entitled "Maple beat the law with the 'big lie.' " Diadiun, who had not attended the court hearing, based the story on a description of the judicial proceedings given him by an OHSAA Commissioner and on his own recollection of the wrestling match and ensuing OHSAA hearing. After reporting the result of the lawsuit, the column stated "[b]ut there is something much more important involved here than whether Maple was denied due process by the OHSAA":

"When a person takes on a job in a school, whether it be as a teacher, coach, administrator or even maintenance worker, it is well to remember that his primary job is that of educator.

"There is scarcely a person concerned with school who doesn't leave his mark in some way on the young people who pass his way--many are the lessons taken away from school by students which weren't learned from a lesson plan or out of a book. They come from personal experiences with and observations

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of their superiors and peers, from watching actions and reactions.

"Such a lesson was learned (or relearned) yesterday by the student body of Maple Heights High School, and by anyone who attended the Maple-Mentor wrestling meet of last Feb. 8.

"A lesson which, sadly, in view of the events of the past year, is well they learned early.

"It is simply this: If you get in a jam, lie your way out."

Diadiun stated that Milkovich and others had "misrepresented" the occurrences at the OHSAA hearing but that Milkovich's testimony "had enough contradictions and obvious untruths so that the six [OHSAA] board members were able to see through it." Diadiun then asserted that by the time the court hearing was held, Milkovich and a fellow witness "apparently had their version of the incident polished and reconstructed, and the judge apparently believed them." Diadiun opined that anyone who had attended the match "knows in his heart that Milkovich ... lied at the hearing after ... having given his solemn oath to tell the truth. But [he] got away with it." The column concluded:

"Is that the kind of lesson we want our young people learning from their high school administrators and coaches?

"I think not."

Milkovich filed a libel action in state court against Diadiun, the News-Herald, and the latter's parent, the Lorain Journal Company (petitioners). The court denied [106 S.Ct. 325] petitioners' motion for summary judgment, but held that Milkovich was a public figure and, as such, was required to meet the standards established in New York Times. After five days of trial, at the close of Milkovich's case, petitioners moved for a directed verdict. The court granted this motion, finding that Milkovich's evidence failed to establish actual malice as a matter of law. The Ohio Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 65 Ohio App.2d 143, 416 N.E.2d 662 (1979). It noted that the Common Pleas Court had accepted Milkovich's testimony, and ruled that this alone constituted sufficient evidence of actual malice to survive a motion for a directed verdict. The Ohio Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as raising no substantial constitutional question. This Court denied certiorari; I dissented. Lorain Journal Co. v. Milkovich, 449 U.S. 966, 101 S.Ct. 380, 66 L.Ed.2d 232 (1980).

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On remand and before a new judge in the Common Pleas Court, petitioners filed a second motion for summary judgment. The court reaffirmed the earlier holding that Milkovich was a public figure for purposes of the New York Times test and granted the motion. The court held that Milkovich had failed to proffer sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that Diadiun's column was published with actual malice. Alternatively, the court found that the column constituted a privileged expression of opinion. This time the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the law of the case did not bar a second motion for summary judgment and agreeing with both of the trial court's particular holdings.

The Ohio Supreme Court reversed. Milkovich v. News-Herald, 15 Ohio St.3d 292, 473 N.E.2d 1191 (1984). Concluding "upon a careful review of the record" that Milkovich had not waived the right to challenge the earlier determination of his status as a public figure, the court held that Milkovich was neither a "public official" nor a "public figure," and that the contents of the challenged article were facts which, if false, are not protected by the First Amendment. Id., at 294-297, 473 N.E.2d, at 1193-1196. This petition followed.

II

A

In New York Times, we had no occasion "to determine how far down into the lower ranks of government employees the 'public official' designation would extend...." 376 U.S., at 283, n. 23, 84 S.Ct., at 727, n. 23. That...

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