Time, Inc. v. Firestone

424 U.S. 448

Case Year: 1976

Case Ruling: 5-3

Opinion Justice: Rehnquist

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Blackmun, Burger, Powell, Stewart


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Brennan


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: White


3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Marshall


Other Concurring Opinions:


In Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, a plurality of the Court, in a judgment written by Justice Brennan, argued that the primary emphasis of the New York Times test "derives not so much from whether the plaintiff is a 'public official,' 'public figure,'" or "'private individual' as it derives from the question whether the allegedly defamatory publication concerns a matter of public or general interest." In writing these words, Brennan claimed that the New York Times test applied to all stories of public interest regardless of the public status of the individual.

The reaction to this rulingwas mixed. The media were delighted: it would now be extremely difficult for any individual mentioned in a story of public interest to prove libel. Others were quick to criticize. Justice Marshall, usually an ally of Brennan's, thought the opinion went much too far, that Rosenbloom was "just one of the millions of Americans who live their lives in obscurity." Still others argued that it put a heavy burden on lower-court judges to determine what was in the public's interest.

Just three years later, in Gertz v. Welch (1974), the Court largely abandoned the Rosenbloom framework. It held that " so long as they do not impose liability without fault, the States may define for themselves the appropriate standard of liability for a publisher or broadcaster of defamatory falsehood injurious to a private individual. This approach provides a more equitable boundary between the competing concerns involved here. It recognizes the strength of the legitimate state interest in compensating private individuals for wrongful injury to reputation, yet shields the press and broadcast media from the rigors of strict liability for defamation. At least this conclusion obtains where, as here, the substance of the defamatory statement 'makes substantial danger to reputation apparent.' This phrase places in perspective the conclusion we announce today."

The issue was not completely put to rest, however. In 1976 the Court dealt with a similar concern in Time, Inc. v. Firestone. Mary Alice Sullivan had married Russell Firestone, heir to the tire fortune, in 1961. Six years later, she filed for separation, and he countered with a plea for a divorce. The trial was a protracted, well-publicized affair, given the notoriety of the Firestones and the details of their relationship. In granting the divorce, the trial judge noted that each of the parties had accused the other of outrageous extramarital affairs but that he had found the testimony to be unreliable. After the divorce was final, Time magazine ran the following story in its "Milestones" section:

divorced. By Russell A. Firestone Jr., 41, heir to the tire fortune: Mary Alice Sullivan Firestone, 32, his third wife; a onetime Palm Beach schoolteacher; on grounds of extreme cruelty and adultery; after six years of marriage, one son; in West Palm Beach, Fla. The 17-month intermittent trial produced enough testimony of extramarital adventures on both sides, said the judge, "to make Dr. Freud's hair curl."

Because the magazine reported as true material the judge had explicitly discounted as unreliable, Ms. Firestone requested a printed retraction. When Time refused, she sued on the grounds that the story was "false, malicious, and defamatory." Time argued that she was a public figure and, therefore, had to prove "actual malice."

Relying on its ruling in Gertz, the Supreme Court disagreed.



... Petitioner initially contends that it cannot be liable for publishing any falsehood defaming respondent unless it is established that the publication was made "with actual malice," as that term is defined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,1964). Petitioner [claims] that respondent is a "public figure" within this Court's decisions extending New York Times to defamation suits brought by such individuals, see, e.g., Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967)....

In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1974), we have recently further defined the meaning of "public figure" for the purposes of the First and Fourteenth Amendments:

"For the most part those who attain this status have assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society. Some occupy positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes. More commonly, those classed as public figures have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved."

Respondent did not assume any role of especial prominence in the affairs of society, other than perhaps Palm Beach society, and she did not thrust herself to the forefront of any particular public controversy in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved in it.

Petitioner contends that because the Firestone divorce was characterized by the Florida Supreme Court as a "cause celebre," it must have been a public controversy and respondent must be considered a public figure. But in so doing petitioner seeks to equate "public controversy" with all controversies of interest to the public. Were we to accept this reasoning, we would reinstate the doctrine advanced in the plurality opinion in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 1971), which concluded that the New York Times privilege should be extended to falsehoods defamatory of private persons whenever the statements concern matters of general or public interest. In Gertz, however, the Court repudiated this position, stating that "extension of the New York Times test proposed by the Rosenbloom plurality would abridge [a] legitimate state interest to a degree that we find unacceptable."

Dissolution of a marriage through judicial proceedings is not the sort of "public controversy" referred to in Gertz, even though the marital difficulties of extremely wealthy individuals may be of interest to some portion of the reading public. Nor did respondent freely choose to publicize issues as to the propriety of her married life. She was compelled to go to court by the State in order to obtain legal release from the bonds of matrimony. We have said that in such an instance "[r]esort to the judicial process ... is no more voluntary in a realistic sense than that of the defendant called upon to defend his interests in court."... Her actions, both in instituting the litigation and in its conduct, were quite different from those of General Walker in Curtis Publishing Co. She assumed no "special prominence in the resolution of public questions." Gertz. We hold respondent was not a "public figure" for the purpose of determining the constitutional protection afforded petitioner's report of the factual and legal basis for her divorce....


... It is true, of course, that the Court in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974), cut back on the scope of application of theNew York Times privilege as it had evolved through the plurality opinion in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., (1971).Rosenbloom had held the New York Times privilege applicable to "all discussion and communication involving matters of public or general concern, without regard to whether the persons involved are famous or anonymous." But in light of the Court's perception of an altered balance between the conflicting values at stake where the person defamed is in some sense a "private individual," ... held First Amendment interests adequately protected in such circumstances so long as defamation liability is restricted to a requirement of "fault" and proof of "actual injury" resulting from the claimed defamation.... However, the extension of the relaxed standard of Gertzto news reporting of events transpiring in and decisions arising out of public judicial proceedings is unwarranted by the terms of Gertz itself, is contrary to other well-established precedents of this Court and, most importantly, savages the cherished values encased in the First Amendment.

There is no indication in Gertz of any intention to overrule the Rosenbloom decision on its facts. Confined to those facts,Rosenbloom holds that in instances of erroneous reporting of the public actions of public officials, the New York Times actual-malice standard must be met before liability for defamation may be imposed in favor of persons affected by those actions. Although Gertzclearly altered the broader rationale of Rosenbloom, until the Court's decision today it could not have been supposed that Rosenbloom did not remain the law roughly to the extent of my Brother WHITE's concurring statement therein:

"[I]n defamation actions, absent actual malice as defined in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the First Amendment gives the press and the broadcast media a privilege to report and comment upon the official actions of public servants in full detail, with no requirement that the reputation or the privacy of an individual involved in or affected by the official action be spared from public view."

At stake in the present case is the ability of the press to report to the citizenry the events transpiring in the Nation's judicial systems. There is simply no meaningful or constitutionally adequate way to report such events without reference to those persons and transactions that form the subject matter in controversy....


I would affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court because First Amendment values will not be furthered in any way by application to this case of the fault standards newly drafted and imposed by Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974), upon which my Brother REHNQUIST relies, or the fault standards required by Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., (1971), upon which my Brother BRENNAN relies; and because, in any event, any requisite fault was properly found below....


The Court agrees with the Supreme Court of Florida that the "actual malice" standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan(1964), does not apply to this case. Because I consider the respondent, Mary Alice Firestone, to be a "public figure" within the meaning of our prior decisions, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. , (1974); Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, (1967), I respectfully dissent.

Mary Alice Firestone was not a person "first brought to public attention by the defamation that is the subject of the lawsuit."... On the contrary, she was "prominent among the `400' of Palm Beach society," and an "active [member] of the sporting set, ... "whose activities predictably attracted the attention of a sizable portion of the public. Indeed, Mrs. Firestone's appearances in the press were evidently frequent enough to warrant her subscribing to a press-clipping service.

Mrs. Firestone brought suit for separate maintenance, with reason to know of the likely public interest in the proceedings. As the Supreme Court of Florida noted, Mr. and Mrs. Firestone's "marital difficulties were ... well-known," and the lawsuit became "a veritable cause celebre in social circles across the country."... The 17-month trial and related events attracted national news coverage, and elicited no fewer than 43 articles in the Miami Herald and 45 articles in the Palm Beach Postand Palm Beach Times. Far from shunning the publicity, Mrs. Firestone held several press conferences in the course of the proceedings. These facts are sufficient to warrant the conclusion that Mary Alice Firestone was a "public figure" for purposes of reports on the judicial proceedings she initiated. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. , we noted that an individual can be a public figure for some purposes and a private figure for others. And we found two distinguishing features between public figures and private figures. First, we recognized that public figures have less need for judicial protection because of their greater ability to resort to self-help; "public figures usually enjoy significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication and hence have a more realistic opportunity to counteract false statements than private individuals normally enjoy."

As the above recital of the facts makes clear. Mrs. Firestone is hardly in a position to suggest that she lacked access to the media for purposes relating to her lawsuit. It may well be that she would have had greater difficulty countering alleged falsehoods in the national press than in the Miami and Palm Beach papers that covered the proceedings so thoroughly. But presumably the audience Mrs. Firestone would have been most interested in reaching could have been reached through the local media. In any event, difficulty in reaching all those who may have read the alleged falsehood surely ought not preclude a finding that Mrs. Firestone was a public figure under GertzGertzset no absolute requirement that an individual be able fully to counter falsehoods through self-help in order to be a public figure. We viewed the availability of the self-help remedy as a relative matter in Gertz, and set it forth as a minor consideration in determining whether an individual is a public figure.

The second, "more important," consideration in Gertzwas a normative notion that public figures are less deserving of protection than private figures: That although "it may be possible for someone to become a public figure through no purposeful action of his own," generally those classed as public figures have "thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies" and thereby "invite[d] attention and comment."... And even if they have not, "the communications media are entitled to act on the assumption that ... public figures have voluntarily exposed themselves to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood concerning them."...

We must assume that it was by choice that Mrs. Firestone became an active member of the "sporting set"--a social group with "especial prominence in the affairs of society," ibid., whose lives receive constant media attention. Certainly there is nothing in the record to indicate otherwise, and Mrs. Firestone's subscription to a press-clipping service suggests that she was not altogether uninterested in the publicity she received. Having placed herself in a position in which her activities were of interest to a significant segment of the public, Mrs. Firestone chose to initiate a lawsuit for separate maintenance, and most significantly, held several press conferences in the course of that lawsuit. If these actions for some reason fail to establish as a certainly that Mrs. Firestone "voluntarily exposed [herself] to increased risk of injury from defamatory falsehood," surely they are sufficient to entitle the press to act on the assumption that she did. Accordingly, Mrs. Firestone would appear to be a public figure under Gertz....