Time, Inc. v. Firestone

No. 74-944 Argued: October 14, 1975 --- Decided: March 2, 1976
MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner is the publisher of Time, a weekly news magazine. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed a [p450] $100,000 libel judgment against petitioner which was based on an item appearing in Time that purported to describe the result of domestic relations litigation between respondent and her husband. We granted certiorari, 421 U.S. 909 (1975), to review petitioner's claim that the judgment violates its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

I

Respondent, Mary Alice Firestone, married Russell Firestone, the scion of one of America's wealthier industrial families, in 1961. In 1964, they separated, and respondent filed a complaint for separate maintenance in the Circuit Court of Palm Beach County, Fla. Her husband counterclaimed for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery. After a lengthy trial, the Circuit Court issued a judgment granting the divorce requested by respondent's husband. In relevant part, the court's final judgment read:

This cause came on for final hearing before the court upon the plaintiff wife's second amended complaint for separate maintenance (alimony unconnected with the causes of divorce), the defendant husband's answer and counterclaim for divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery, and the wife's answer thereto setting up certain affirmative defenses. . .

* * * *

According to certain testimony in behalf of the defendant, extramarital escapades of the plaintiff were bizarre and of an amatory nature which would have made Dr. Freud's hair curl. Other testimony, in plaintiff's behalf, would indicate that defendant was guilty of bounding from one bedpartner to another [p451] with the erotic zest of a satyr. The court is inclined to discount much of this testimony as unreliable. Nevertheless, it is the conclusion and finding of the court that neither party is domesticated within the meaning of that term as used by the Supreme Court of Florida. . . .

* * * *

In the present case, it is abundantly clear from the evidence of marital discord that neither of the parties has shown the least susceptibility to domestication, and that the marriage should be dissolved.

* * * *

The premises considered, it is thereupon

ORDERED AND ADJUDGED as follows:

1. That the equities in this cause are with the defendant; that defendant's counterclaim for divorce be and the same is hereby granted, and the bonds of matrimony which have heretofore existed between the parties are hereby forever dissolved.

* * * *

4. That the defendant shall pay unto the plaintiff the sum of $3,000 per month as alimony beginning January 1, 1968, and a like sum on the first day of each and every month thereafter until the death or remarriage of the plaintiff.

App 523-525, 528.

Time's editorial staff, headquartered in New York, was alerted by a wire service report and an account in a New York newspaper to the fact that a judgment had been rendered in the Firestone divorce proceeding. The staff subsequently received further information regarding the Florida decision from Time's Miami bureau chief and from a "stringer" working on a special assignment basis in the Palm Beach area. On the basis of these four sources, Time's staff composed the following item, [p452] which appeared in the magazine's "Milestones" section the following week:

DIVORCED. By Russell A. Firestone Jr., 41, heir to the tire fortune: Mary Alice Sullivan Firestone, 32, his third wife; a onetime Palm Beach schoolteacher; on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery; after six years of marriage, one son; in West Palm Beach, Fla. The 17-month intermittent trial produced enough testimony of extramarital adventures on both sides, said the judge, "to make Dr. Freud's hair curl."

Within a few weeks of the publication of this article, respondent demanded in writing a retraction from petitioner, alleging that a portion of the article was "false, malicious and defamatory." Petitioner declined to issue the requested retraction. [n1]

Respondent then filed this libel action against petitioner in the Florida Circuit Court. Based on a jury verdict for respondent, that court entered judgment against petitioner for $100,000, and, after review in both the Florida District Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Florida, the judgment was ultimately affirmed. 305 So.2d 172 (1974). Petitioner advances several contentions as to why the judgment is contrary to decisions of this Court holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution limit the authority of state courts to impose liability for damages based on defamation.

II

Petitioner initially contends that it cannot be liable for publishing any falsehood defaming respondent unless [p453] it is established that the publication was made "with actual malice," as that term is defined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). [n2] Petitioner advances two arguments in support of this contention: that respondent is a "public figure" within this Court's decisions extending New York Times to defamation suits brought by such individuals, see, e.g., Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967); and that the Time item constituted a report of a judicial proceeding, a class of subject matter which petitioner claims deserves the protection of the "actual malice" standard even if the story is proved to be defamatorily false or inaccurate. We reject both arguments.

In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1974), we have recently further defined the meaning of "public figure" for the purposes of the First and Fourteenth Amendments:

For the most part, those who attain this status have assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society. Some occupy positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes. More commonly, those classed as public figures have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.

Respondent did not assume any role of especial prominence in the affairs of society, other than perhaps Palm Beach society, and she did not thrust herself to the forefront of any particular public controversy in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved in it. [p454]

Petitioner contends that, because the Firestone divorce was characterized by the Florida Supreme Court as a "cause celebre," it must have been a, public controversy and respondent must be considered a public figure. But, in so doing, petitioner seeks to equate "public controversy" with all controversies of interest to the public. Were we to accept this reasoning, we would reinstate the doctrine advanced in the plurality opinion in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29 (1971), which concluded that the New York Times privilege should be extended to falsehoods defamatory of private persons whenever the statements concern matters of general or public interest. In Gertz, however, the Court repudiated this position, stating that

extension of the New York Times test proposed by the Rosenbloom plurality would abridge [a] legitimate state interest to a degree that we find unacceptable.

418 U.S. at 346.

Dissolution of a marriage through judicial proceedings is not the sort of "public controversy" referred to in Gertz, even though the marital difficulties of extremely wealthy individuals may be of interest to some portion of the reading public. Nor did respondent freely choose to publicize issues as to the propriety of her married life. She was compelled to go to court by the State in order to obtain legal release from the bonds of matrimony. We have said that, in such an instance,

[r]esort to the judicial process . . . is no more voluntary in a realistic sense than that of the defendant called upon to defend his interests in court.

Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 376-377 (1971). Her actions, both in instituting the litigation and in its conduct, were quite different from those of General Walker in Curtis Publishing Co., supra. [n3] She assumed no "special prominence [p455] in the resolution of public questions." Gertz, supra at 351. We hold respondent was not a "public figure" for the purpose of determining the constitutional protection afforded petitioner's report of the factual and legal basis for her divorce.

For similar reasons, we likewise reject petitioner's claim for automatic extension of the New York Times privilege to all reports of judicial proceedings. It is argued that information concerning proceedings in our Nation's courts may have such importance to all citizens as to justify extending special First Amendment protection to the press when reporting on such events. We have recently accepted a significantly more confined version of this argument by holding that the Constitution precludes States from imposing civil liability based upon the publication of truthful information contained in official court records open to public inspection. Cox Broadcasting Corp v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975).

Petitioner would have us extend the reasoning of Cox Broadcasting to safeguard even inaccurate and false statements, at least where "actual malice" has not been established. But its argument proves too much. It may be that all reports of judicial proceedings contain some informational value implicating the First Amendment, but recognizing this is little different from labeling all judicial proceedings matters of "public or general interest," as that phrase was used by the plurality [p456] in Rosenbloom. Whatever their general validity, use of such subject matter classifications to determine the extent of constitutional protection afforded defamatory falsehoods may too often result in an improper balance between the competing interests in this area. It was our recognition and rejection of this weakness in the Rosenbloom test which led us in Gertz to eschew a subject matter test for one focusing upon the character of the defamation plaintiff. See 418 U.S. at 344-346. By confining inquiry to whether a plaintiff is a public officer or a public figure who might be assumed to "have voluntarily exposed himself to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood," we sought a more appropriate accommodation between the public's interest in an uninhibited press and its equally compelling need for judicial redress of libelous utterances. Cf. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

Presumptively erecting the New York Times barrier against all plaintiffs seeking to recover for injuries from defamatory falsehoods published in what are alleged to be reports of judicial proceedings would effect substantial depreciation of the individual's interest in protection from such harm without any convincing assurance that such a sacrifice is required under the First Amendment. And, in some instances, such an undiscriminating approach might achieve results directly at odds with the constitutional balance intended. Indeed, the article upon which the Gertz libel action was based purported to be a report on the murder trial of a Chicago police officer. See 418 U.S. at 325-326. Our decision in that case should make it clear that no such blanket privilege for reports of judicial proceedings is to be found in the Constitution.

It may be argued that there is still room for application of the New York Times protections to more narrowly [p457] focused reports of what actually transpires in the courtroom. But even so narrowed, the suggested privilege is simply too broad. Imposing upon the law of private defamation the rather drastic limitations worked by New York Times cannot be justified by generalized references to the public interest in reports of judicial proceedings. The details of many, if not most, courtroom battles would add almost nothing toward advancing the uninhibited debate on public issues thought to provide principal support for the decision in New York Times. See 376 U.S. at 270; cf. Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 86 (1966). And while participants in some litigation may be legitimate "public figures," either generally or for the limited purpose of that litigation, the majority will more likely resemble respondent, drawn into a public forum largely against their will in order to attempt to obtain the only redress available to them or to defend themselves against actions brought by the State or by others. There appears little reason why these individuals should substantially forfeit that degree of protection which the law of defamation would otherwise afford them simply by virtue of their being drawn into a courtroom. The public interest in accurate reports of judicial proceedings is substantially protected by Cox Broadcasting Co., supra. As to inaccurate and defamatory reports of facts, matters deserving no First Amendment protection, see 418 U.S. at 340, we think Gertz provides an adequate safeguard for the constitutionally protected interests of the press and affords it a tolerable margin for error by requiring some type of fault.

III

Petitioner has urged throughout this litigation that it could not be held liable for publication of the "Milestones" item because its report of respondent's divorce [p458] was factually correct. In its view, the Time article faithfully reproduced the precise meaning of the divorce judgment. But this issue was submitted to the jury under an instruction intended to implement Florida's limited privilege for accurate reports of judicial proceedings. App. 509; see 305 So.2d at 177. By returning a verdict for respondent, the jury necessarily found that the identity of meaning which petitioner claims does not exist even for laymen. The Supreme Court of Florida upheld this finding on appeal, rejecting petitioner's contention that its report was accurate as a matter of law. Because demonstration that an article was true would seem to preclude finding the publisher at fault, see Cox Broadcasting Co., 420 U.S. at 498-500 (POWELL, J., concurring), we have examined the predicate for petitioner's contention. We believe the Florida courts properly could have found the "Milestones" item to be false.

For petitioner's report to have been accurate, the divorce granted Russell Firestone must have been based on a finding by the divorce court that his wife had committed extreme cruelty toward him and that she had been guilty of adultery. This is indisputably what petitioner reported in its "Milestones" item, but it is equally indisputable that these were not the facts. Russell Firestone alleged in his counterclaim that respondent had been guilty of adultery, but the divorce court never made any such finding. Its judgment provided that Russell Firestone's "counterclaim for divorce be and the same is hereby granted," but did not specify that the basis for the judgment was either of the two grounds alleged in the counterclaim. The Supreme Court of Florida, on appeal, concluded that the ground actually relied upon by the divorce court was "lack of domestication of the parties," a ground not theretofore recognized by Florida law. The Supreme Court nonetheless affirmed the judgment dissolving the bonds of matrimony [p459] because the record contained sufficient evidence to establish the ground of extreme cruelty. Firestone v. Firestone, 263 So.2d 223, 225 (1972).

Petitioner may well argue that the meaning of the trial court's decree was unclear, [n4] but this does not license it to choose from among several conceivable interpretations the one most damaging to respondent. Having chosen to follow this tack, [n5] petitioner must be able to establish not merely that the item reported was a conceivable or plausible interpretation of the decree, but that the item was factually correct. We believe there is ample support for the jury's conclusion, affirmed by the Supreme Court of Florida, that this was not the case. There was, therefore, sufficient basis for imposing liability upon petitioner if the constitutional limitations we announced in Gertz have been satisfied. These are a prohibition against imposing liability without fault, 418 U.S. at 347, and the requirement that compensatory awards "be supported by competent evidence concerning the injury." Id. at 350. [p460]

As to the latter requirement, little difficulty appears. Petitioner has argued that, because respondent withdrew her claim for damages to reputation on the eve of trial, there could be no recovery consistent with Gertz. Petitioner's theory seems to be that the only compensable injury in a defamation action is that which may be done to one's reputation, and that claims not predicated upon such injury are, by definition, not actions for defamation. But Florida has obviously decided to permit recovery for other injuries without regard to measuring the effect the falsehood may have had upon a plaintiff's reputation. This does not transform the action into something other than an action for defamation as that term is meant in Gertz. In that opinion we made it clear that States could base awards on elements other than injury to reputation, specifically listing "personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering" as examples of injuries which might be compensated consistently with the Constitution upon a showing of fault. Because respondent has decided to forgo recovery for injury to her reputation, she is not prevented from obtaining compensation for such other damages that a defamatory falsehood may have caused her.

The trial court charged, consistently with Gertz, that the jury should award respondent compensatory damages in "an amount of money that will fairly and adequately compensate her for such damages," and further cautioned that "[i]t is only damages which are a direct and natural result of the alleged libel which may be recovered." App. 509. There was competent evidence introduced to permit the jury to assess the amount of injury. Several witnesses [n6] testified to the extent of respondent's [p461] anxiety and concern over Time's inaccurately reporting that she had been found guilty of adultery, and she herself took the stand to elaborate on her fears that her young son would be adversely affected by this falsehood when he grew older. The jury decided these injuries should be compensated by an award of $100,000. We have no warrant for reexamining this determination. Cf. Lincoln v. Power, 151 U.S. 436 (1894).

IV

Gertz established, however, that not only must there be evidence to support an award of compensatory damages, there must also be evidence of some fault on the part of a defendant charged with publishing defamatory material. No question of fault was submitted to the jury in this case, because, under Florida law, the only findings required for determination of liability were whether the article was defamatory, whether it was true, and whether the defamation, if any, caused respondent harm.

The failure to submit the question of fault to the jury does not, of itself, establish noncompliance with the constitutional requirements established in Gertz, however. Nothing in the Constitution requires that assessment of fault in a civil case tried in a state court be made by a jury, nor is there any prohibition against such a finding being made in the first instance by an appellate, rather than a trial, court. The First and Fourteenth Amendments do not impose upon the States any limitations as to how, within their own judicial systems, factfinding tasks shall be allocated. If we were satisfied that one of the Florida courts which considered this case had supportably ascertained petitioner [p462] was at fault, we would be required to affirm the judgment below.

But the only alternative source of such a finding, given that the issue was not submitted to the jury, is the opinion of the Supreme Court of Florida. That opinion appears to proceed generally on the assumption that a showing of fault was not required, [n7] but then, in the penultimate paragraph, it recites:

Furthermore, this erroneous reporting is clear and convincing evidence of the negligence in certain segments of the news media in gathering the news. Gertz v. Welch, Inc., supra. Pursuant to Florida law in effect at the time of the divorce judgment (Section 61.08, Florida Statutes), a wife found guilty of adultery could not be awarded alimony. Since petitioner had been awarded alimony, she had not been found guilty of adultery, nor had the [p463] divorce been granted on the ground of adultery. A careful examination of the final decree prior to publication would have clearly demonstrated that the divorce had been granted on the grounds of extreme cruelty, and thus the wife would have been saved the humiliation of being accused of adultery in a nationwide magazine. This is a flagrant example of "journalistic negligence."

305 So.2d at 178.

It may be argued that this is sufficient indication the court found petitioner at fault within the meaning of Gertz. Nothing in that decision or in the First or Fourteenth Amendment requires that, in a libel action, an appellate court treat in detail by written opinion all contentions of the parties, and, if the jury or trial judge had found fault in fact, we would be quite willing to read the quoted passage as affirming that conclusion. But, without some finding of fault by the judge or jury in the Circuit Court, we would have to attribute to the Supreme Court of Florida from the quoted language not merely an intention to affirm the finding of the lower court, but an intention to find such a fact in the first instance.

Even where a question of fact may have constitutional significance, we normally accord findings of state courts deference in reviewing constitutional claims here. See, e.g., Lyons v. Oklahoma, 322 U.S. 596, 602 603 (1944); Gallegos v. Nebraska, 342 U.S. 55, 60-61 (1951) (opinion of Reed, J.). But that deference is predicated on our belief that, at some point in the state proceedings, some factfinder has made a conscious determination of the existence or nonexistence of the critical fact. Here, the record before us affords no basis for such a conclusion.

It may well be that petitioner's account in its "Milestones" section was the product of some fault on its part, [p464] and that the libel judgment against it was, therefore, entirely consistent with Gertz. But in the absence of a finding in some element of the state court system that there was fault, we are not inclined to canvass the record to make such a determination in the first instance. Cf. Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. at 87-88. Accordingly, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is vacated, and the case remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

So ordered.

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

1. Under Florida law, the demand for retraction was a prerequisite for filing a libel action, and permits defendants to limit their potential liability to actual damages by complying with the demand. Fla.Stat.Ann. §§ 770.01-770.02 (1963).

2. The "actual malice" test requires that a plaintiff prove that the defamatory statement was made "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U.S. at 280.

3. Nor do we think the fact that respondent may have held a few press conferences during the divorce proceedings in an attempt to satisfy inquiring reporters converts her into a "public figure." Such interviews should have had no effect upon the merits of the legal dispute between respondent and her husband or the outcome of that trial, and we do not think it can be assumed that any such purpose was intended. Moreover, there is no indication that she sought to use the press conferences as a vehicle by which to thrust herself to the forefront of some unrelated controversy in order to influence its resolution. See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1974).

4. Petitioner is incorrect in arguing that a rational interpretation of an ambiguous document is constitutionally protected under our decision in Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279 (1971). There, we were applying the New York Times standard to test whether the defendant had acted in reckless disregard of the truth. Id. at 292. But as we have concluded that the publication in this case need not be tested against the "actual malice" standard, Pape is of no assistance to petitioner.

5. In fact, it appears that none of petitioner's employees actually saw the decree prior to publication of the "Milestones" article. But we do not think this can affect the extent of constitutional protection afforded the statement. Moreover, petitioner has maintained throughout that it would have published an identical statement if its editorial staff had had an opportunity to peruse the judgment prior to their publication deadline, and has consistently contended that its article was true when compared to the words of that judgment.

6. These included respondent's minister, her attorney in the divorce proceedings, plus several friends and neighbors, one of whom was a physician who testified to having to administer a sedative to respondent in an attempt to reduce discomfort wrought by her worrying about the article.

7. After reiterating its conclusion that the article was false, the Florida court noted that falsely accusing a woman of adultery is libelous per se, and normally actionable without proof of damages. The court then recognized that our opinion in Gertz necessarily displaced this presumption of damages, but ruled that the trial court's instruction was consistent with Gertz, and that there was evidence to support the jury's verdict -- conclusions with which we have agreed. The court went on to reject a claim of privilege under state law, pointing out that the privilege shielded only "fair and accurate" reports, and the jury had resolved these issues against petitioner. The court appears to have concluded its analysis of petitioner's legal claims with this statement, which immediately precedes the paragraph set out in the text:

Careful examination and consideration of the record discloses that the judgment of the trial court is correct, and should have been affirmed on appeal to the District Court.


305 So.2d at 177-178. There is nothing in the court's opinion which appears to make any reference to the relevance of some concept of fault in determining petitioner's liability.
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