WASHINGTON -- The justices let stand a ruling dismissing the suit brought by Cohn after the Feb. 6, 1977, NBC broadcast of 'Tail Gunner Joe,' a three-hour film about the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hunt for communists in the government.
Cohn was chief counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Invesigations, chaired by McCarthy, during 1953 and 1954. G. David Schine, who joined Cohn in the suit, served as an unsalaried consultant to the committee at the same time.
Schine, Cohn and his law firm sued NBC for money damages, arguing the two men had been defamed by certain scenes and the general negative portrayal of McCarthy's associates.
The men said the movie contained libelous assertions, including that they engaged in a campaign to burn books of well-known authors, for 'no other purpose than to create the malicious impression that Cohn and Schine were unrestrained zealots bent on destroying American institutions.'
A trial court held one scene could be considered as defaming the two men, but an appellate court said none of the material consituted libel and dismissed the case.
The New York appeals court held that even if the film were found defamatory, the libel claim had to be dismissed because Cohn and Schine were public figures who must prove the film was made and shown with 'actual malice.'