WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court let stand Tuesday a $400,000 libel award for Chicago lawyer Elmer Gertz in a 22-year-old case against the John Birch Society's American Opinion magazine.
The justices refused to hear arguments by the magazine's publisher Robert Welch Inc. that the law makes it too easy for a private figure to recover money damages in a defamation case.
The Supreme Court decided in 1974 that Gertz could recover money damages for false statements if he proved negligence in the preparation and writing of a story. Each state may set its own standard for liability for libel cases brought by private individuals as long as no liability is imposed without fault, the court held.
Gertz sued for libel after an 18-page article was published in the April 1969 edition of American Opinion that described the trial and conviction of a Chicago police officer for the death of 17-year-old Ronald Nelson.
Gertz represented Nelson's family in a suit asking $1 million damages. The article, written by freelancer Alan Stang, suggested the police officer was a victim of a 'frame-up' that was part of a Communist conspiracy todiscredit local police forces.
Gertz, who denied he was a member of any Communist group, sued for defamation.
At trial in 1970, Gertz won $50,000. On appeal, a district court rejected the verdict and ruled in Welch's favor on grounds Gertz failed to prove 'actual malice' that public figures must show to win a libel suit under a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling for the same reasons.
On appeal, the Supreme Court held that although the article addressed a matter of public interest, Gertz was not a public figure. The justices returned the case to lower courts to allow Gertz, as a private individual, a chance to prove negligence to recover money damages.
At a second trial in 1981, Gertz was required under Illinois law to prove actual malice because the article's author had used public records to prepare the article. A jury awarded Gertz $400,000.
The 7th Circuit affirmed, noting Stang had a 'known and reasonable propensity' to label as Marxist or Communist control a number of individuals and his editor should have been questioned Stang's veracity and accuracy.
Welch appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the lower court rulings could lead to major changes in libel law.