Summary of Milkovich v. Lorain Journal
Citation: 497 U.S. 1
Relevant Facts: Milkovich was the wrestling coach at a high school (Maple Heights) in Ohio (1974 season). At a home match, members of the team were involved in a fight – several people were injured as a result. Because of the fight, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OSHAA) put the team on probation for its behavior. Consequent to that, parents and students alike sued the organization, seeking a restraining order for the probation, based on the fact that the members had not yet had due process. The Court of Common Please overturned the conviction, and in consequence, the local newspaper published an article claiming that Milkovich had lied so that the probation would be overturned. Milkovich filed suit on defamation grounds.
Issues: The legal question presented was whether the local newspaper could be held liable for defamation because it published an article about a private rather than public official/individual as a means of attacking his character?
Holding: The Supreme Court held that although newspapers have First Amendment rights, as per the legal question, they could be held liable.
Reasoning: The majority of the Court found that the First Amendment does not automatically shield newspapers from being sued for libel, particularly when a plaintiff can clearly demonstrate that statements made by a newspaper were intended to harm someone and their reputation. The Court found that the article in question was not constitutionally protected; the First Amendment does guarantee free speech, but the law of defamation and social values dictate that character attacks –when not based on fact but speculation – are not protected. In short, the Court ruled that while the First Amendment offers profound free speech rights, those rights are never permitted when clear defamation exists.
Dissent: Justices Brennan and Marshal dissented and asserted that, “The majority does not rest its decision today on any finding that the statements at issue explicitly state a false and defamatory fact. Nor could it." The Justices noted that because the article used qualifiers such as “apparently” when making claims, then defamation had not been proven, because such language, when taken at face value could not be construed to mean that the authors perceived their comments and claims to be fact.