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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974): Extending the “Actual Malice” Defense from Public Officials to Public Figures.

Issue: Elected or appointed public officials are not alone in their ability to affect the lives of others. Often, public figures get into the news, and sometimes can have as much impact—or more—on the lives of others than do public officials.

Facts: This case arose when Chicago lawyer Elmer Gertz, a man who never held a paid office, was attacked by American Opinion, the magazine published by the far-right John Birch Society headed by wealthy candy manufacturer Robert Welch. Gertz came to the attention of Welch and the Birch Society because he was hired by a family whose son had been fatally shot by Chicago Policeman Richard Nuccio. Nuccio was convicted of second-degree murder.10

American Opinion reacted by publishing an article declaring that Elmer Gertz was had led a “frame up” of Nuccio, and that the lawyer was part of a communist plot to discredit local police. Gertz was said to be a “Leninist” and a “Communist fronter” with a lengthy criminal record. None of those statements were true, and Gertz—representing himself—sued for libel. Gertz initially won $50,000, but the award was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)., That court held that because the American Opinion article dealt with a matter of public interest, Gertz would have to prove “actual malice” by the magazine. Even though he was a successful lawyer, members of the jury in his libel case had never heard of him. Gertz, who kept a low profile on his lawsuit--including refusing to be interviewed while his case was being tried before a jury—appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Decision: (5-4) Gertz was a private figure, and would need to prove only negligence [roughly, a jury’s opinion of what a libel defendant should not have done] instead of the more rigorous standard of proof of “actual malice.” Actual malice requires proof of “knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth” on the part of the publisher.

Reasons: Because public officials and public figures have greater access to channels of communication than private individuals, they have a more realistic ability to defend themselves in a controversy. Gertz had never held a paid public office, and the Court denied American Opinion’s contention that Gertz was a a “de facto public official” as a lawyer because all lawyers are “officers of the court.”

Further, Gertz was not a public figure. He was not famous and therefore a public figure. Nor was he a second category of public figure, the person who “voluntarily injects himself into the “vortex” of a public controversy and therefore becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.11

Outcome: On retrial in 1982--a dozen years after he brought his libel suit—Elmer Gertz finally received $400,000.12 And in its decision, the Supreme Court of the United States set the rules for categorizing libel plaintiffs and explained what each category of plaintiff would have to prove to collect damages in a libel suit.

  • Private figures need to prove only negligence by the publisher to collect compensatory damages, which are a jury’s idea of compensation for harm to reputation. Private individuals have to prove actual malice to collect punitive damages. (Punitive damages—as the term implies—are assessed by a jury to punish a publisher for outrageous conduct, and generally result in high-dollar damage awards.)

  • Public Officials and Public Figures must prove actual malice to collect either compensatory or punitive damages.

Elmer Gertz? He used his libel winnings for trips around the world.


10 Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 471 F.2d 801 (7th Cir.1972); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), discussed in Teeter & Loving, op. cit., pp. 330-332.

11 Gertz v. Robert Welc h, Inc., 418 U.S.362-364 (1974).

12 Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 680 F.2d 527 (7th Cir.1982).