475 U.S. 767 (1986), 84-1491, Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps

Docket Nº:No. 84-1491
Citation:475 U.S. 767, 106 S.Ct. 1558, 89 L.Ed.2d 783, 54 U.S.L.W. 4373
Party Name:Philadelphia Newspapers v. Hepps
Case Date:April 21, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 767

475 U.S. 767 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 1558, 89 L.Ed.2d 783, 54 U.S.L.W. 4373

Philadelphia Newspapers

v.

Hepps

No. 84-1491

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1986

Argued December 3, 1985

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA

Syllabus

Appellee Hepps is the principal stockholder of appellee corporation that franchises [106 S.Ct. 1559] a chain of stores selling beer, soft drinks, and snacks. Appellant owner published a series of articles in its Philadelphia newspaper whose general theme was that Hepps, the franchisor corporation, and its franchisees (also appellees) had links to organized crime and used some of those links to influence the State's governmental processes. Appellees then brought a defamation suit in a Pennsylvania state court against the newspaper owner and the authors (also appellants) of the articles in question. Concluding that the Pennsylvania statute giving the defendant the burden of proving the truth of allegedly defamatory statements violated the Federal Constitution, the trial court instructed the jury that the plaintiff bore the burden of proving falsity. The jury ruled for appellants, and therefore awarded no damages to appellees. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, concluding that a showing of fault did not require a showing of falsity, held that to place the burden of showing truth on the defendant did not unconstitutionally inhibit free debate, and remanded the case for a new trial.

Held: In a case such as this one, where a newspaper publishes speech of public concern about a private figure, the private-figure plaintiff cannot recover damages without also showing that the statements at issue are false. Because in such a case the scales are in an uncertain balance as to whether the statements are true or false, the Constitution requires that the scales be tipped in favor of protecting true speech. To ensure that true speech on matters of public concern is not deterred, the common law presumption that defamatory speech is false cannot stand. While Pennsylvania's "shield law," which allows employees of the media to refuse to divulge their sources, places a heavier burden on appellees, the precise scope of that law is unclear and, under these circumstances, it does not appear that such law requires a different constitutional standard than would prevail in the absence of such law. Pp. 771-779.

506 Pa. 304, 485 A.2d 374, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 779. STEVENS,

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J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 780.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us once more to

struggl[e] . . . to define the proper accommodation between the law of defamation and the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment.

Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 325 (1974). In Gertz, the Court held that a private figure who brings a suit for defamation cannot recover without some showing that the media defendant was at fault in publishing the statements at issue. Id. at 347. Here, we hold that, at least where a newspaper publishes speech of public

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concern, a private-figure plaintiff cannot recover damages without also showing that the statements at issue are false.

I

Maurice S. Hepps is the principal stockholder of General Programming, Inc. (GPI), a corporation that franchises a chain of stores -- known at the relevant time as "Thrifty" stores -- selling beer, soft drinks, and snacks. Mr. Hepps, GPI, and a number of its franchisees are the appellees [106 S.Ct. 1560] here.1 Appellant Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., owns the Philadelphia Inquirer (Inquirer). The Inquirer published a series of articles, authored by appellants William Ecenbarger and William Lambert, containing the statements at issue here. The general theme of the five articles, which appeared in the Inquirer between May, 1975, and May, 1976, was that appellees had links to organized crime and used some of those links to influence the State's governmental processes, both legislative and administrative. The articles discussed a state legislator, described as "a Pittsburgh Democrat and convicted felon,"App. A60, whose actions displayed "a clear pattern of interference in state government by [the legislator] on behalf of Hepps and Thrifty," id. at A62-A63. The stories reported that federal "investigators have found connections between Thrifty and underworld figures," id. at A65; that "the Thrifty Beverage beer chain . . . had connections . . . with organized crime," id. at A80; and that Thrifty had "won a series of competitive advantages through rulings by the State Liquor Control Board," id. at A65. A grand jury was said to be investigating the "alleged relationship between the Thrifty chain and known Mafia figures," and "[w]hether the chain received special treatment from the [state Governor's] administration and the Liquor Control Board." Id. at A68.

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Appellees brought suit for defamation against appellants in a Pennsylvania state court. Consistent with Gertz, supra, Pennsylvania requires a private figure who brings a suit for defamation to bear the burden of proving negligence or malice by the defendant in publishing the statements at issue. 42 Pa.Cons.Stat. § 8344 (1982). As to falsity, Pennsylvania follows the common law's presumption that an individual's reputation is a good one. Statements defaming that person are therefore presumptively false, although a publisher who bears the burden of proving the truth of the statements has an absolute defense. See 506 Pa. 304, 313-314, 485 A.2d 374, 379 (1984). See also 42 Pa.Cons.Stat. § 8343(b)(1) (1982) (defendant has the burden of proving the truth of a defamatory statement). Cf. Gertz, supra, at 349 (common law presumes injury to reputation from publication of defamatory statements). See generally Eaton, The American Law of Defamation Through Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., and Beyond: An Analytical Primer, 61 Va.L.Rev. 1349, 1352-1357 (1975) (describing common law scheme of defamation law).

The parties first raised the issue of burden of proof as to falsity before trial, but the trial court reserved its ruling on the matter. Appellee Hepps testified at length that the statements at issue were false, Tr. 2221-2290, and he extensively cross-examined the author of the stories as to the veracity of the statements at issue. After all the evidence had been presented by both sides, the trial court concluded that Pennsylvania's statute giving the defendant the burden of proving the truth of the statements violated the Federal Constitution. Id. at 3589. The trial court therefore instructed the jury that the plaintiffs bore the burden of proving falsity. Id. at 3848.

During the trial, appellants took advantage of Pennsylvania's "shield law" on a number of occasions. That law allows employees of the media to refuse to divulge their sources. See 42 Pa.Cons.Stat. § 5942(a) (1982) ("No person . . . employed by any newspaper of general circulation . . . or any

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radio or television station, or any magazine of general circulation, . . . shall be required to disclose the source of any information procured or obtained by such person, in any legal proceeding, trial or investigation before any government unit"). See also 506 Pa. at 327, 485 A.2d at 387 ("This statute has been interpreted [106 S.Ct. 1561] broadly"). Appellees requested an instruction stating that the jury could draw a negative inference from appellants' assertions of the shield law; appellants requested an instruction that the jury could not draw any inferences from those exercises of the shield law's privilege. The trial judge declined to give either instruction. Tr. 3806-3808. The jury ruled for appellants and therefore awarded no damages to appellees.

Pursuant to Pennsylvania statute, 42 Pa.Cons.Stat. § 722(7) (1982), the appellees here brought an appeal directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court viewed Gertz as simply requiring the plaintiff to show fault in actions for defamation. It concluded that a showing of fault did not require a showing of falsity, held that to place the burden of showing truth on the defendant did not unconstitutionally inhibit free debate, and remanded the case for a new trial.2 506 Pa. at 318-329, 485 A.2d at 382-387. We noted probable jurisdiction, 472 U.S. 1025 (1985), and now reverse.

II

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Court

determin[ed] for the first time the extent to which the constitutional protections for speech and press limit a State's power to award damages in a libel action brought by a

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public official against critics of his official conduct.

Id. at 256. The State's trial court in that case believed the statements tended to injure the plaintiff's reputation or bring him into public contempt, id. at 267, and were therefore libelous per se, id. at 262. The trial court therefore instructed the jury that it could presume falsity, malice, and some damage to reputation, as long as it found that the defendant had published the statements and that the statements concerned the plaintiff. Ibid. The trial court also instructed the jury that an award of punitive damages required "malice" or "actual malice." Id. at 262, 267. The jury found for the plaintiff and made an award of damages that did not distinguish between compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 262. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the judgment of the trial court in all respects. Id. at 263.

This Court reversed, holding that...

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