491 U.S. 657 (1989), 88-10, Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton

Docket Nº:No. 88-10
Citation:491 U.S. 657, 109 S.Ct. 2678, 105 L.Ed.2d 562, 57 U.S.L.W. 4846
Party Name:Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton
Case Date:June 22, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 657

491 U.S. 657 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 2678, 105 L.Ed.2d 562, 57 U.S.L.W. 4846

Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc.

v.

Connaughton

No. 88-10

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1989

Argued March 20, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent was the unsuccessful challenger for the position of Municipal Judge of Hamilton, Ohio, in an election conducted on November 8, 1983. A local newspaper, the Journal News, published by petitioner supported the reelection of the incumbent. A little over a month before the election, the incumbent's Director of Court Services resigned and was arrested on bribery charges, and a grand jury investigation of those charges was in progress on November 1, 1983. On that day, the Journal News ran a front-page story quoting a grand jury witness (Thompson) as stating that respondent had used "dirty tricks" and offered her and her sister jobs and a trip to Florida "in appreciation" for their help in the investigation. Respondent filed a diversity action against petitioner for libel in Federal District Court, alleging that the story was false, had damaged his personal and professional reputation, and had been published with actual malice. After listening to six days of testimony and three taped interviews -- one conducted by respondent and two by Journal News reporters -- and reviewing the contents of 56 exhibits, the jury was given instructions defining the elements of public figure libel and directed to answer three special verdicts. It found by a preponderance of the evidence that the story in question was defamatory and false, and by clear and convincing proof that the story was published with actual malice, and awarded respondent $5,000 in compensatory damages and $195,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It separately considered the evidence supporting each of the jury's special verdicts, concluding that neither the finding that the story was defamatory nor the finding that it was false was clearly erroneous. In considering the actual malice issue, but without attempting to make an independent evaluation of the credibility of conflicting oral testimony concerning the subsidiary facts underlying the jury's finding of actual malice, the court identified 11 subsidiary facts that the jury "could have" found, and held that such findings would not have been clearly erroneous, and, based on its independent review, that, when considered cumulatively, they provided clear and convincing evidence of actual malice.

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Held:

1. A showing of

highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers

cannot alone support a verdict in favor of a public figure [109 S.Ct. 2681] plaintiff in a libel action. Rather, such a plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the false and defamatory material with actual malice, i.e., with knowledge of falsity or with a reckless disregard for the truth. Although there is language in the Court of Appeals' opinion suggesting that it applied the less severe professional standards rule, when read as a whole, it is clear that this language is merely supportive of the court's ultimate conclusion that the Journal News acted with actual malice. Pp. 663-668.

2. A reviewing court in a public figure libel case must "exercise independent judgment and determine whether the record establishes actual malice with convincing clarity" to ensure that the verdict is consistent with the constitutional standard set out in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, and subsequent decisions. See Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485. Based on this Court's review of the entire record, the Court of Appeals properly held that the evidence did in fact support a finding of actual malice, but it should have taken a somewhat different approach in reaching that result. While the jury may have found each of the 11 subsidiary facts, the case should have been decided on a less speculative ground. Given the trial court's instructions, the jury's answers to the three special interrogatories, and an understanding of those facts not in dispute, it is evident that the jury must have rejected (1) the testimony of petitioner's witnesses that Thompson's sister, the most important witness to the bribery charges against the Director of Court Services, was not contacted simply because respondent failed to place her in touch with the newspaper; (2) the testimony of the editorial director of the Journal News that he did not listen to the taped interviews simply because he thought that they would provide him with no new information; and (3) the testimony of Journal News employees who asserted that they believed Thompson's allegations were substantially true. When those findings are considered alongside the undisputed evidence, the conclusion that the newspaper acted with actual malice inextricably follows. The evidence in the record in this case, when reviewed in its entirety, is "unmistakably" sufficient to support a finding of actual malice. Pp. 685-693.

842 F.2d 825, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which

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REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. 694. BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 694, and KENNEDY, J., post, p. 696, filed concurring opinions. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 696.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

A public figure may not recover damages for a defamatory falsehood without clear and convincing proof that the false

statement was made 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, 279-280 (1964). See Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 162 (1967) (opinion of Warren, C.J.). In Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States Inc., 466 U.S. 485 (1984), we held that judges in such cases have a constitutional duty to "exercise independent judgment and determine whether the record establishes actual malice with convincing clarity." Id. at 514. In this case, the Court of Appeals affirmed [109 S.Ct. 2682] a libel judgment against a newspaper without attempting to make an independent evaluation of the credibility of conflicting oral testimony concerning the subsidiary facts underlying the jury's finding of actual malice. We granted certiorari to consider whether the Court of Appeals' analysis was consistent with our holding in Bose. 488 U.S. 907 (1988).

Page 660

I

Respondent, Daniel Connaughton, was the unsuccessful candidate for the office of Municipal Judge of Hamilton, Ohio, in an election conducted on November 8, 1983. Petitioner is the publisher of the Journal News, a local newspaper that supported the reelection of the incumbent, James Dolan. A little over a month before the election, the incumbent's Director of Court Services resigned and was arrested on bribery charges. A grand jury investigation of those charges was in progress on November 1, 1983. On that date, the Journal News ran a front-page story quoting Alice Thompson, a grand jury witness, as stating that Connaughton had used "dirty tricks" and offered her and her sister jobs and a trip to Florida "in appreciation" for their help in the investigation.

Invoking the federal court's diversity jurisdiction, Connaughton filed an action for damages, alleging that the article was false, that it had damaged his personal and professional reputation, and that it had been published with actual malice. After discovery, petitioner filed a motion for summary judgment relying in part on an argument that, even if Thompson's statements were false, the First Amendment protects the accurate and disinterested reporting of serious charges against a public figure. The District Court denied the motion, noting that the evidence raised an issue of fact as to the newspaper's interest in objective reporting and that the "neutral reportage doctrine" did not apply to Thompson's statements.1 The case accordingly proceeded to trial.

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After listening to six days of testimony and three taped interviews -- one conducted by Connaughton and two by Journal News reporters -- and reviewing the contents of 56 exhibits, the jury was given succinct instructions accurately defining the elements of public figure libel and directed to answer three special verdicts.2 It unanimously found by a preponderance of [109 S.Ct. 2683] the evidence that the November 1 story was defamatory and that it was false. It also found by clear and convincing proof that the story was published with actual malice. After a separate hearing on damages, the jury awarded Connaughton $5,000 in compensatory damages and $195,000 in punitive damages. Thereafter, the District Court denied a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, App. to Pet. for Cert. 83a, and petitioner appealed.

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The Court of Appeals affirmed. 842 F.2d 825 (CA6 1988). In a lengthy opinion, the majority detailed why its "independent examination of the entire record" had demonstrated that "the judgment does not pose a forbidden intrusion into the First Amendment rights of free expression." Id. at 828. The opinion identified the "core issue" as

simply one of credibility to be attached to the witnesses appearing on behalf of the respective parties and the reasonableness and probability assigned to their testimony.

Id. at 839-840. It separately considered the evidence supporting each of...

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