497 U.S. 1 (1990), 89-645, Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.

Docket Nº:No. 89-645
Citation:497 U.S. 1, 110 S.Ct. 2695, 111 L.Ed.2d 1, 58 U.S.L.W. 4846
Party Name:Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.
Case Date:June 21, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court

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497 U.S. 1 (1990)

110 S.Ct. 2695, 111 L.Ed.2d 1, 58 U.S.L.W. 4846



Lorain Journal Co.

No. 89-645

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 1990

Argued April 24, 1990




While petitioner Milkovich was a high school wrestling coach, his team was involved in an altercation at a match with another high school's team. Both he and School Superintendent Scott testified at an investigatory hearing before the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA), which placed the team on probation. They testified again during a suit by several parents, in which a county court overturned OHSAA's ruling. The day after the court's decision, respondent Lorain Journal Company's newspaper published a column authored by respondent Diadiun, which implied that Milkovich lied under oath in the judicial proceeding. Milkovich commenced a defamation action against respondents in the county court, alleging that the column accused him of committing the [110 S.Ct. 2697] crime of perjury, damaged him in his occupation of teacher and coach, and constituted libel per se. Ultimately, the trial court granted summary judgment for respondents. The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed, considering itself bound by the State Supreme Court's determination in Superintendent Scott's separate action against respondents that, as a matter law, the article was constitutionally protected opinion.


1. The First Amendment does not require a separate "opinion" privilege limiting the application of state defamation laws. While the Amendment does limit such application, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, the breathing space that freedoms of expression require to survive is adequately secured by existing constitutional doctrine.

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Foremost, where a media defendant is involved, a statement on matters of public concern must be provable as false before liability can be assessed, Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, thus ensuring full constitutional protection for a statement of opinion having no provably false factual connotation. Next, statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual are protected, see, e.g., Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v. Bresler, 398 U.S. 6, thus assuring that public debate will not suffer for lack of "imaginative expression" or the "rhetorical hyperbole" which has traditionally added much to the discourse of this Nation. The reference to "opinion" in dictum in Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 339-340, was not intended to create a wholesale defamation exemption for "opinion." Read in context, the Gertz dictum is merely a reiteration of Justice Holmes' "marketplace of ideas" concept, see Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630. Simply couching a statement -- "Jones is a liar" -- in terms of opinion -- "In my opinion, Jones is a liar" -- does not dispel the factual implications contained in the statement. Pp. 11-21.

2. A reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statements in the Diadiun column imply an assertion that Milkovich perjured himself in a judicial proceeding. The article did not use the sort of loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language that would negate the impression that Diadiun was seriously maintaining Milkovich committed perjury. Nor does the article's general tenor negate this impression. In addition, the connotation that Milkovich committed perjury is sufficiently factual that it is susceptible of being proved true or false by comparing, inter alia, his testimony before the OHSAA board with his subsequent testimony before the trial court. Pp. 21-22.

3. This decision balances the First Amendment's vital guarantee of free and uninhibited discussion of public issues with the important social values that underlie defamation law and society's pervasive and strong interest in preventing and redressing attacks upon reputation. Pp. 22-23.

46 Ohio App.3d 20, 545 N.E.2d 1320 (1989), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 23.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent J. Theodore Diadiun authored an article in an Ohio newspaper implying that petitioner Michael Milkovich, a local high school wrestling coach, lied under oath [110 S.Ct. 2698] in a judicial proceeding about an incident involving petitioner and his team which occurred at a wrestling match. Petitioner sued Diadiun and the newspaper for libel, and the Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court entry of summary judgment against petitioner. This judgment was based in part on the grounds that the article constituted an "opinion" protected from the reach of state defamation law by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. We hold that the First Amendment does not prohibit the application of Ohio's libel laws to the alleged defamations contained in the article.

This case is before us for the third time in an odyssey of litigation spanning nearly 15 years.1 Petitioner Milkovich, now retired, was the wrestling coach at Maple Heights High

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School in Maple Heights, Ohio. In 1974, his team was involved in an altercation at a home wrestling match with a team from Mentor High School. Several people were injured. In response to the incident, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) held a hearing at which Milkovich and H. Don Scott, the Superintendent of Maple Heights Public Schools, testified. Following the hearing, OHSAA placed the Maple Heights team on probation for a year and declared the team ineligible for the 1975 state tournament. OHSAA also censored Milkovich for his actions during the altercation. Thereafter, several parents and wrestlers sued OHSAA in the Court of Common Pleas of Franklin County, Ohio, seeking a restraining order against OHSAA's ruling on the grounds that they had been denied due process in the OHSAA proceeding. Both Milkovich and Scott testified in that proceeding. The court overturned OHSAA's probation and ineligibility orders on due process grounds.

The day after the court rendered its decision, respondent Diadiun's column appeared in the News-Herald, a newspaper which circulates in Lake County, Ohio, and is owned by respondent Lorain Journal Co. The column bore the heading "Maple beat the law with the `big lie,'" beneath which appeared Diadiun's photograph and the words "TD Says." The carryover page headline announced ". . . Diadiun says Maple told a lie." The column contained the following passages:

. . . 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.

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If you're successful enough, and powerful enough, and can sound sincere enough, you stand an excellent chance of making the lie stand up, regardless of what really happened.

The teachers responsible were mainly Maple wrestling coach, Mike Milkovich, and former superintendent of schools, H. Donald Scott.

* * * *

Anyone who attended the meet, whether he be from Maple Heights, Mentor, or impartial observer, knows in his heart that Milkovich and Scott lied at the hearing after each having given his solemn oath to tell the truth.

But they got away with it.

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

I think not.

See Milkovich v. The News-Herald, 46 Ohio App.3d 20, 21, 545 N.E.2d 1320, 1321-1322 (1989).2

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[110 S.Ct. 2699] Petitioner commenced a defamation action against respondents in the Court of Common Pleas of Lake County, Ohio, alleging that the headline of Diadiun's article and the

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nine passages quoted above

accused plaintiff of committing the crime of perjury, an indictable offense in the State of Ohio, and damaged plaintiff directly in his lifetime occupation [110 S.Ct. 2700] of coach and teacher, and constituted libel per se.

App. 12. The action proceeded to trial, and the court granted a directed verdict to respondents on the grounds that the evidence failed to establish the article was published with "actual malice" as required by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). See App. 21-22. The Ohio Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Appellate District reversed and remanded, holding that there was sufficient evidence of actual malice to go to the jury. See Milkovich v. The Lorain Journal, 65 Ohio App.2d 143, 416 N.E.2d 662 (1979). The Ohio

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Supreme Court dismissed the ensuing appeal for want of a substantial constitutional question, and this Court denied certiorari. 449 U.S. 966 (1980).

On remand, relying in part on our decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), the trial court granted summary judgment to respondents on the grounds that the article was an opinion protected from a libel action by "constitutional law," App. 55, and alternatively, as a public figure, petitioner had failed to make out a prima facie case of actual malice. App. 55-59. The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed both determinations. Id. at 62-70. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed and remanded. The court first decided that petitioner was neither a public figure nor a public official under the relevant decisions of this Court. See Milkovich v. News-Herald, 15 Ohio St.3d 292, 294-299, 473 N.E.2d 1191, 1193-1196 (1984). The court then found that

the statements in issue are factual assertions as a matter of law, and are not constitutionally protected as the opinions of the writer. ....

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