Rosenblatt v. Baer, No. 38

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBRENNAN
Citation86 S.Ct. 669,15 L.Ed.2d 597,383 U.S. 75
Docket NumberNo. 38
Decision Date21 February 1966
PartiesAlfred D. ROSENBLATT, Petitioner, v. Frank P. BAER

383 U.S. 75
86 S.Ct. 669
15 L.Ed.2d 597
Alfred D. ROSENBLATT, Petitioner,

v.

Frank P. BAER.

No. 38.
Argued Oct. 20, 1965.
Decided Feb. 21, 1966.

[Syllabus from pages 75-76 intentionally omitted]

Page 76

Arthur H. Nighswander, Laconia, N.H., for petitioner.

Stanley M. Brown, Manchester, N.H., for respondent.

Page 77

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A jury in New Hampshire Superior Court awarded respondent damages in this civil libel action based on one of petitioner's columns in the Laconia Evening Citizen. Respondent alleged that the column contained defamatory falsehoods concerning his performance as Supervisor of the Belknap County Recreation Area, a facility owned and operated by Belknap County. In the interval between the trial and the decision of petitioner's appeal by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, we decided New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686. We there held that consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments a State cannot award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless the official proves actual malice—that the falsehood was published with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. The New Hampshire Supreme Court affirmed the award, finding New York Times no bar. 106 N.H. 26, 203 A.2d 773. We granted certiorari and requested the parties to brief and argue, in addition to the questions presented in the petition for certiorari, the question whether respondent was a 'public official' under New York Times and under our decision in Garrison v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125; 380 U.S. 941, 85 S.Ct. 1023, 13 L.Ed.2d 961.

The Recreation Area was used principally as a ski resort but also for other recreational activities. Respondent was employed by and directly responsible to the Belknap County Commissioners, three elected officials in charge of the county government. During the 1950's, a public controversy developed over the way respondent and the Commissioners operated the Area; some protested that respondent and the Commissioners had not developed the

Page 78

Area's full potential, either as a resort for local residents or as a tourist attraction that might contribute to the county's taxes. The discussion culminated in 1959, when the New Hampshire Legislature enacted a law transferring control of the Area to a special five-man commission.1 At least in part to give this new regime a fresh start, respondent was discharged.

Petitioner regularly contributed an unpaid column to the Laconia Evening Citizen. In it he frequently commented on political matters. As an outspoken proponent of the change in operations at the Recreation Area, petitioner's views were often sharply stated, and he had indicated disagreement with the actions taken by respondent and the County Commissioners. In January 1960, during the first ski season under the new management, some six months after respondent's discharge, petitiioner published the column that respondent alleges libeled him. In relevant part, it reads:

'Been doing a little listening and checking at Belknap Recreation Area and am thunderstruck by what am learning.

'This year, a year without snow till very late, a year with actually few very major changes in procedure; the difference in cash income simply fantastic, almost unbelievable.

'On any sort of comparative basis, the Area this year is doing literally hundreds of per cent BETTER than last year.

'When consider that last year was excellent snow year, that season started because of more snow, months earlier last year, one can only ponder following question:

'What happened to all the money last year? and every other year? What magic has Dana Beane

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(Chairman of the new commission) and rest of commission, and Mr. Warner (respondent's replacement as Supervisor) wrought to make such tremendous difference in net cash results?'

I.

The column on its face contains no clearly actionable statement. Although the questions 'What happened to all the money last year? and every other year?' could be read to imply peculation, they could also be read, in context, merely to praise the present administration. The only persons mentioned by name are officials of the new regime; no reference is made to respondent, the three elected commissioners, or anyone else who had a part in the administration of the Area during respondent's tenure. Persons familiar with the controversy over the Area might well read it as complimenting the luck or skill of the new management in attracting increased patronage and producing a 'tremendous difference in net cash results' despite less favorable snow; indeed, witnesses for petitioner testified that they so read the column.

Respondent offered extrinsic proofs to supply a defamatory meaning. These proofs were that the column greatly exaggerated any improvement under the new regime, and that a large part of the community understood it to say that the asserted improvements were not explicable by anything the new management had done. Rather, his witnesses testified, they read the column as imputing mismanagement and peculation during respondent's tenure. Respondent urged two theories to support a recovery based on that imputation.

II.

The first was that the jury could award him damages if it found that the column cast suspicion indiscrimi-

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nately on the small number of persons who composed the former management group, whether or not it found that the imputation of misconduct was specifically made of and concerning him.2 This theory of recovery was open to respondent under New Hampshire law; the trial judge explicitly instructed the jury that 'an imputation of impropriety or a crime to one or some of a small group that cast suspicion upon all is actionable.'3 The question is presented, however, whether that theory of recovery is precluded by our holding in New York Times that, in the absence of sufficient evidence that the attack focused on the plaintiff, an otherwise impersonal attack on governmental operations cannot be utilized to establish a libel of those administering the operations. 376 U.S., at 290—292, 84 S.Ct., at 731.

The plaintiff in New York Times was one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama. His duties included the supervision of the police department. The statements in the advertisement upon which he principally relied as referring to him were that 'truckloads of police * * * ringed the Alabama State College Campus' after a demonstration on the State Capitol steps, and that Dr. Martin Luther King had been 'arrested * * * seven times.' These statements were false in that although the police had been 'deployed near the campus,' they had not actually 'ringed' it and had not gone there in connection with a State Capitol demonstration, and in that Dr. King had been arrested only

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four times. We held that evidence that Sullivan as Police Commissioner was the supervisory head of the Police Department was constitutionally insufficient to show that the statements about police activity were 'of and concerning' him; we rejected as inconsistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments the proposition followed by the Alabama Supreme Court in the case that '(i)n measuring the performance or deficiencies of * * * groups, praise or criticism is usually attached to the official in complete control of the body,' New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 273 Ala. 656, 674—675, 144 So.2d 25, 39. To allow the jury to connect the statements with Sullivan on that presumption alone was, in our view, to invite the spectre of prosecutions for libel on government, which the Constitution does not tolerate in any form. 376 U.S., at 273—276, 290—292, 84 S.Ct., at 722, 731.4 We held 'that such a proposition may not constitutionally be utilized to establish that an otherwise impersonal attack on governmental operations was a libel of an official responsible for those operations.' 376 U.S., at 292, 84 S.Ct., at 732. There must be evidence showing that the attack was read as specifically directed at the plaintiff.

Were the statement at issue in this case an explicit charge that the Commissioners and Baer or the entire Area management were corrupt, we assume without deciding that any member of the identified group might recover.5 The statement itself might be sufficient evidence that the attack was specifically directed at each individual. Even if a charge and reference were merely implicit, as is alleged here, but a plaintiff could show by extrinsic proofs that the statement referred to him, it would be no defense to a suit by one member of an

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identifiable group engaged in governmental activity that another was also attacked. These situations are distinguishable from the present case; here, the jury was permitted to infer both defamatory content and reference from the challenged statement itself, although the statement on its face is only an impersonal discussion of government activity. To the extent the trial judge authorized the jury to award respondent a recovery without regard to evidence that the asserted implication of the column was made specifically of and concerning him, we hold that the instruction was erroneous. 6 Here, no explicit charge of peculation was made; no assault on the previous management appears. The jury was permitted to award damages upon a finding merely that respondent was one of a small group acting for an organ of government, only some of whom were implicated, but all of whom were tinged with suspicion. In effect, this permitted the jury to find liability merely on the basis of his relationship to the government agency, the operations of which were the subject of discussion. It is plain that the elected Commissioners, also members of that group,

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would have been barred from suit on this...

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883 practice notes
  • Stern v. U.S. Gypsum, Inc., No. 76-1070
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • January 12, 1977
    ...for government operations is at the very core of the constitutionally protected free speech area, see, e. g., Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). We think it plain t......
  • Mangual v. Rotger-Sabat, No. 02-1669.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • January 21, 2003
    ...holding it, entirely apart from the scrutiny and discussion occasioned by the particular charges in controversy." Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966). In practice, the term is now used more broadly and includes many government employees, including police......
  • Donahoe v. Arpaio, No. CV10-2756-PHX-NVW
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Arizona
    • April 9, 2012
    ...public to have[] substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.'" Id. (quoting Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85 (1966)). Here, Mundell and Donahoe can fairly be named public officials, and the alleged false light related, broadly, to the performance o......
  • Slevin v. City of New York, No. 79 Civ. 4524 (ADS)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • December 15, 1982
    ...for purposes of this rule." 376 U.S. at 283 n. 23, 84 S.Ct. at 727 n. 23. This question was subsequently addressed in Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966), where the Court found that "public official" includes "those among the hierarchy of government employee......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
885 cases
  • Stern v. U.S. Gypsum, Inc., No. 76-1070
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • January 12, 1977
    ...for government operations is at the very core of the constitutionally protected free speech area, see, e. g., Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). We think it plain t......
  • Mangual v. Rotger-Sabat, No. 02-1669.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • January 21, 2003
    ...holding it, entirely apart from the scrutiny and discussion occasioned by the particular charges in controversy." Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966). In practice, the term is now used more broadly and includes many government employees, including police......
  • Donahoe v. Arpaio, No. CV10-2756-PHX-NVW
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Arizona
    • April 9, 2012
    ...public to have[] substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.'" Id. (quoting Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 85 (1966)). Here, Mundell and Donahoe can fairly be named public officials, and the alleged false light related, broadly, to the performance o......
  • Slevin v. City of New York, No. 79 Civ. 4524 (ADS)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • December 15, 1982
    ...for purposes of this rule." 376 U.S. at 283 n. 23, 84 S.Ct. at 727 n. 23. This question was subsequently addressed in Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966), where the Court found that "public official" includes "those among the hierarchy of government employee......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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