St Amant v. Thompson, No. 517

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWHITE
Citation390 U.S. 727,20 L.Ed.2d 262,88 S.Ct. 1323
PartiesPhil A. ST. AMANT, Petitioner, v. Herman A. THOMPSON
Decision Date29 April 1968
Docket NumberNo. 517

390 U.S. 727
88 S.Ct. 1323
20 L.Ed.2d 262
Phil A. ST. AMANT, Petitioner,

v.

Herman A. THOMPSON.

No. 517.
Argued April 4, 1968.
Decided April 29, 1968.

Page 728

Russell J. Schonekas, New Orleans, La., for petitioner.

Robert L. Kleinpeter, Baton Rouge, La., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented by this case is whether the Louisiana Supreme Court, in sustaining a judgment for damages in a public official's defamation action, correctly interpreted and applied the rule of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), that the plaintiff in such an action must prove that the defamatory publication 'was made with 'actual malice'—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.' 376 U.S., at 279—280, 84 S.Ct., at 726.

On June 27, 1962, petitioner St. Amant, a candidate for public office, made a televised speech in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the course of this speech, St. Amant read a series of questions which he had put to J. D. Albin, a member of a Teamsters Union local, and Albin's answers to those questions. The exchange concerned the allegedly nefarious activities of E. G. Partin, the president of the local, and the alleged relationship between Partin and St. Amant's political opponent. One of Albin's answers concerned his efforts to prevent Partin from secreting union records; in this answer Albin referred to Herman A. Thompson, an East Baton Rouge Parish deputy sheriff and respondent here:

'Now, we knew that this safe was gonna be moved that night, but imagine our predicament, knowing

Page 729

of Ed's connections with the Sheriff's office through Herman Thompson, who made recent visits to the Hall to see Ed. We also knew of money that had passed hands between Ed and Herman Thompson * * * from Ed to Herman. We also knew of his connections with State Trooper Lieutenant Joe Green. We knew we couldn't get any help from there and we didn't know how far that he was involved in the Sheriff's office or the State Police office through that, and it was out of the jurisdiction of the City Police.'1

Thompson promptly brought suit for defamation, claiming that the publication had 'impute(d) * * * gross misconduct' and 'infer(red) conduct of the most nefarious nature.' The case was tried prior to the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra. The trial judge ruled in Thompson's favor and awarded $5,000 in damages. Thereafter, in the course of entertaining and denying a motion for a new trial, the Court considered the ruling in New York Times, finding that rule no barrier to the judgment already entered. The Louisiana Court of Appeal reversed because the record failed to show that St. Amant had acted with actual malice, as required by New York Times. 184 So.2d 314 (1966). The Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed the intermediate appellate court. 250 La. 405, 196 So.2d 255 (1967). In its view, there was sufficient evidence that St. Amant recklessly disregarded whether the statements about Thompson were true or false. We granted a writ of certiorari. 389 U.S. 1033, 88 S.Ct. 766, 19 L.Ed.2d 820 (1968).

Page 730

For purposes of this case we accept the determinations of the Louisiana courts that the material published by St. Amant charged Thompson with criminal conduct, that the charge was false, and that Thompson was a public official 2 and so had the burden of proving that the false statements about Thompson were made with actual malice as defined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and later cases. We cannot, however, agree with either the Supreme Court of Louisiana or the trial court that Thompson sustained this burden.

Purporting to apply the New York Times malice standard, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that St. Amant had broadcast false information about Thompson recklessly, though not knowingly. Several reasons were given for this conclusion. St. Amant had no personal knowledge of Thompson's activities; he relied solely on Albin's affidavit although the record was silent as to Albin's reputation for veracity; he failed to verify the information with those in the union office who might have known the facts; he gave no consideration to whether or not the statements defamed Thompson and went ahead heedless of the consequences; and he mistakenly believed he had no responsibility for the broadcast because he was merely quoting Albin's words.

These considerations fall short of proving St. Amant's reckless disregard for the accuracy of his statements about Thompson. 'Reckless disregard,' it is true, cannot be fully encompassed in one infallible definition. Inevitably its outer limits will be marked out through case-by-case adjudication, as is true with so many legal stand-

Page 731

ards for judging concrete cases, whether the standard is provided by the Constitution, statutes, or case law. Our cases, however, have furnished meaningful guidance for the further definition of a reckless publication. In New York Times, supra, the plaintiff did not satisfy his burden because the record failed to show that the publisher was aware of the likelihood that he was circulating false information. In Garrison v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125 (1964), also decided before the decision of the Louisiana Supreme Court in this case, the opinion emphasized the necessity for a showing that a false publication was made with a 'high degree of awareness of * * * probable falsity.' 379 U.S., at 74, 85 S.Ct., at 216. Mr. Justice Harlan's opinion in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 153, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 1991, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967), stated that evidence of either deliberate falsification or reckless publication 'despite the publisher's awareness of probable falsity' was essential to recovery by public...

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1685 practice notes
  • Sharon v. Time, Inc., No. 83 Civ. 4660 (ADS).
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of New York
    • November 12, 1984
    ...2997, 3008, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974); Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 284, 91 S.Ct. 633, 636, 28 L.Ed.2d 45 (1971); St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1325, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 (1968); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80, 285-86, 84 S.Ct. 710, 725-26, 728-29......
  • Figari v. New York Tel. Co.
    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court Appellate Division
    • July 25, 1969
    ...investigate the truth nor proof of ill will, corrupt motives and personal spite is sufficient to impose liability (St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731--[32 A.D.2d 447] 732, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262; Beckley Newspapers Corp. v. Hanks, 389 U.S. 81, 88 S.Ct. 197, 19 L.Ed.2d 248; Garr......
  • Pestrak v. Ohio Elections Com'n, No. C-2-84-876.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • October 7, 1987
    ...485, 511 n. 30, 104 S.Ct. 1949, 1965 n. 30, 80 L.Ed.2d 502 (1983), citing, New York Times and Gertz, supra, and St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 States seeking to regulate elections and campaign speech and plaintiffs seeking damages for defamatory speech ar......
  • Catalano v. Pechous, Nos. 51912
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Illinois
    • October 17, 1980
    ...only where a defendant "in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication" (St. Amant v. Thompson (1968), 390 U.S. 727, 731, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1325, 20 L.Ed.2d 262, 267) or where he had a "high degree of awareness of * * * probable falsity" (Garrison v. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1684 cases
  • Sharon v. Time, Inc., No. 83 Civ. 4660 (ADS).
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of New York
    • November 12, 1984
    ...2997, 3008, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974); Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 284, 91 S.Ct. 633, 636, 28 L.Ed.2d 45 (1971); St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1325, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 (1968); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80, 285-86, 84 S.Ct. 710, 725-26, 728-29......
  • Figari v. New York Tel. Co.
    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court Appellate Division
    • July 25, 1969
    ...investigate the truth nor proof of ill will, corrupt motives and personal spite is sufficient to impose liability (St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731--[32 A.D.2d 447] 732, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262; Beckley Newspapers Corp. v. Hanks, 389 U.S. 81, 88 S.Ct. 197, 19 L.Ed.2d 248; Garr......
  • Pestrak v. Ohio Elections Com'n, No. C-2-84-876.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • October 7, 1987
    ...485, 511 n. 30, 104 S.Ct. 1949, 1965 n. 30, 80 L.Ed.2d 502 (1983), citing, New York Times and Gertz, supra, and St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 States seeking to regulate elections and campaign speech and plaintiffs seeking damages for defamatory speech ar......
  • Catalano v. Pechous, Nos. 51912
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Illinois
    • October 17, 1980
    ...only where a defendant "in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication" (St. Amant v. Thompson (1968), 390 U.S. 727, 731, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1325, 20 L.Ed.2d 262, 267) or where he had a "high degree of awareness of * * * probable falsity" (Garrison v. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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