Summary of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. v. Hepps
Citation: 475 U.S. 1134
Relevant Facts: The Philadelphia Inquirer accused Hepps of being connected with organized crime and of profiting from said connections in order to carry political sway with the Pennsylvania state legislature. The accusations were carried out through a number of printed articles. Hepps sued the newspaper, and won, with the Court citing that the newspaper had to actually prove the accusations were true in order to print them. The paper appealed the decision on the grounds that the ruling infringed on the organization’s (paper’s) free speech rights under the First Amendment.
Issues: The legal question presented was whether the State Supreme Court’s decision to find in favor of Hepps violated the Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. right to free speech under the First Amendement.
Holding: The Supreme Court held that yes, the State Supreme Court decision did in fact violate the constitutional free speech rights of the Philadelphia Newspaper Inc.
Reasoning: The Court reasoned that per Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc. (1974), the State Supreme Court erred. The established Gertz standard provided a system by which to evaluate potentially libelous speech. The standard provided that for libelous speech to be evaluated/assessed for truthfulness of such a claim, “the plaintiff bears the burden of showing falsity, as well as fault, before recovering damages.” The Court found that although the plaintiff was a private figure rather than a public figure, so too was the newspaper under the law. Since it was a part of the press, and the press is typically granted a great deal of latitude with its expression of stories and information, the issue was one between two private parties and not one private party – the plaintiff – and one public party – the defendant.
Concurrence/Dissent: Justices Brennan and Blackmun dissented, arguing that essentially the majority (the Court) had sanctioned “character assassination" under the guise of constitutionally protected rights where none should or actually do in fact exist. Justice Stevens also dissented arguing that, “deliberate, malicious character assassination is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."
Conclusion: This case was monumentally important because it established the fact that, per the Court, private individuals are tasked with proving falsity when alleging libel against a news provider, rather than having said news provider establish the truth of printed claims. In so doing, the task of restoring one’s reputation can become increasingly (cost and time) prohibitive without recourse from the courts.