Time, Inc. v. Hill

385 U.S. 374

Case Year: 1967

Case Ruling: 5-4 Set Aside and, Remanded

Opinion Justice: Brennan

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Douglas, Stewart, White


1st Concurring Opinion

Author: Black


1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Fortas


2nd Concurring Opinion

Author: Douglas


2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Harlan in Part


3rd Concurring Opinion

Author: Harlan in Part


3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts and Associated Press v. Walker that those in the public eye would have to meet the New York Times test to win libel cases. This was not the only shift in the rapidly changing interpretations of press freedoms in the 1960s. Another came in Time, Inc. v. Hill (1967), which involved not public figures, but private individuals who fell victim to false media reports.

In 1952, three escaped convicts held the Hill family hostage for nineteen hours, an incident that received national press attention and was later depicted in a novel and a play, both entitled The Desperate Hours. As the story evolved from news to novel to play, it became more fictionalized. The most significant departure from reality concerned the play's description of violence against the Hills. In fact, the convicts had treated the Hills relatively well, and no violence had taken place. Life magazine, owned by Time, Inc., published a pictorial essay on the play's opening, but failed to point out that the play was not an accurate representation of what had actually occurred. The Hill family successfully sued for invasion of privacy, receiving a judgment of $30,000 on the basis of a New York law that allowed compensation for the victims of stories containing "substantial falsification."

Time, Inc., appealed this decision, asking the Supreme Court to apply the New York Times test. It argued that the opening of the play was a newsworthy event and the press should be given latitude in covering matters of public interest. The Hills countered that they were private individuals and that they should only have to demonstrate that Time had invaded their privacy by publishing false information about them. The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Brennan, extended the New York Times test to include press coverage of such matters of public interest. Although the Hills were private individuals, the First Amendment must provide sufficient protection so that the press can responsibly cover newsworthy events without an unreasonable fear of damage awards. Consequently, the Hills would have to prove not only that the story's description of them was false, but also that it was published with knowledge of the falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.



The question in this case is whether appellant, publisher of Life Magazine, was denied constitutional protections of speech and press by the application by the New York courts of 50-51 of the New York Civil Rights Law to award appellee damages on allegations that Life falsely reported that a new play portrayed an experience suffered by appellee and his family....

The guarantees for speech and press are not the preserve of political expression or comment upon public affairs, essential as those are to healthy government. One need only pick up any newspaper or magazine to comprehend the vast range of published matter which exposes persons to public view, both private citizens and public officials. Exposure of the self to others in varying degrees is a concomitant of life in a civilized community. The risk of this exposure is an essential incident of life in a society which places a primary value on freedom of speech and of press....

In this context, sanctions against either innocent or negligent misstatement would present a grave hazard of discouraging the press from exercising the constitutional guarantees. Those guarantees are not for the benefit of the press so much as for the benefit of all of us. A broadly defined freedom of the press assures the maintenance of our political system and an open society. Fear of large verdicts in damage suits for innocent or merely negligent misstatement, even fear of the expense involved in their defense, must inevitably cause publishers to "steer ... wider of the unlawful zone," and thus "create the danger that the legitimate utterance will be penalized."...

But the constitutional guarantees can tolerate sanctions against calculated falsehood without significant impairment of their essential function. We held in New York Times that calculated falsehood enjoyed no immunity in the case of alleged defamation of a public official concerning his official conduct.... We find applicable here the standard of knowing or reckless falsehood, not through blind application of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, relating solely to libel actions by public officials, but only upon consideration of the factors which arise in the particular context of the application of the New York statute in cases involving private individuals. This is neither a libel action by a private individual nor a statutory action by a public official. Therefore, although the First Amendment principles pronounced in New York Times guide our conclusion, we reach that conclusion only by applying these principles in this discrete context. It therefore serves no purpose to distinguish the facts here from those in New York Times. Were this a libel action, the distinction which has been suggested between the relative opportunities of the public official and the private individual to rebut defamatory charges might be germane. And the additional state interest in the protection of the individual against damage to his reputation would be involved.... Moreover, a different test might be required in a statutory action by a public official, as opposed to a libel action by a public official or a statutory action by a private individual. Different considerations might arise concerning the degree of "waiver" of the protection the State might afford. But the question whether the same standard should be applicable both to persons voluntarily and involuntarily thrust into the public limelight is not here before us. Turning to the facts of the present case, the proofs reasonably would support either a jury finding of innocent or merely negligent misstatement byLife, or a finding that Life portrayed the play as a re-enactment of the Hill family's experience reckless of the truth or with actual knowledge that the portrayal was false....

We do not think, however, that the instructions confined the jury to a verdict of liability based on a finding that the statements in the article were made with knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard of the truth....

The court ... instructed the jury that an award of punitive damages was justified if the jury found that the appellant falsely connected appellee to the play "knowingly or through failure to make a reasonable investigation," adding "You do not need to find that there was any actual ill will or personal malice toward the plaintiffs if you find a reckless or wanton disregard of the plaintiffs' rights."... The appellant argues that the statute should be declared unconstitutional on its face if construed by the New York courts to impose liability without proof of knowing or reckless falsity. Such a declaration would not be warranted even if it were entirely clear that this had previously been the view of the New York courts. The New York Court of Appeals ... has been assiduous in construing the statute to avoid invasion of the constitutional protections of speech and press. We, therefore, confidently expect that the New York courts will apply the statute consistently with the constitutional command. Any possible difference with us as to the thrust of the constitutional command is narrowly limited in this case to the failure of the trial judge to instruct the jury that a verdict of liability could be predicated only on a finding of knowing or reckless falsity in the publication of the Life article.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is set aside and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.


I concur in reversal of the judgment in this case based on the grounds and reasons stated in the Court's opinion. I do this, however, in order for the Court to be able at this time to agree on an opinion in this important case based on the prevailing constitutional doctrine expressed in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The Court's opinion decides the case in accordance with this doctrine, to which the majority adhere. In agreeing to the Court's opinion, I do not recede from any of the views I have previously expressed about the much wider press and speech freedoms I think the First and Fourteenth Amendments were designed to grant to the people of the Nation. See, e.g., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (concurring opinion).

I acquiesce in the application here of the narrower constitutional view of New York Times with the belief that this doctrine too is bound to pass away as its application to new cases proves its inadequacy to protect freedom of the press from destruction in libel cases and other cases like this one. The words "malicious" and particularly "reckless disregard of the truth" can never serve as effective substitutes for the First Amendment words: "... make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." Experience, I think, is bound to prove that First Amendment freedoms can no more be permanently diluted or abridged by this Court's action than could the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of right to counsel. I think the fate that befell Betts v. Brady (cf. Gideon v. Wainwright), is already foreseeable, even if only dimly, for the New York Times' dilution of First Amendment rights....


While I find much with which I agree in the opinion of the Court, I am constrained to express my disagreement with its view of the proper standard of liability to be applied on remand. Were the jury on retrial to find negligent rather than, as the Court requires, reckless or knowing "fictionalization," I think that federal constitutional requirements would be met....

... I must part company with its sweeping extension of the principles of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. It was established in New York Times that mere falsity will not suffice to remove constitutional protection from published matter relating to the conduct of a public official that is of public concern. But that decision and those in which the Court has developed its doctrine, ... have never found independent value in false publications nor any reason for their protection except to add to the protection of truthful communication. And the Court has been quick to note that where private actions are involved the social interest in individual protection from falsity may be substantial.... Thus I believe that rigorous scrutiny of the principles underlying the rejection of the mere falsity criterion and the imposition of ancillary safeguards, as well as the interest which the State seeks to protect, is necessary to reach a proper resolution of this case....

... [T]here is a vast difference in the state interest in protecting individuals like Mr. Hill from irresponsibly prepared publicity and the state interest in similar protection for a public official. In New York Times we acknowledged public officials to be a breed from whom hardiness to exposure to charges, innuendoes, and criticisms might be demanded and who voluntarily assumed the risk of such things by entry into the public arena. But Mr. Hill came to public attention through an unfortunate circumstance not of his making rather than his voluntary actions and he can in no sense be considered to have "waived" any protection the State might justifiably afford him from irresponsible publicity. Not being inured to the vicissitudes of journalistic scrutiny such an individual is more easily injured and his means of self-defense are more limited. The public is less likely to view with normal skepticism what is written about him because it is not accustomed to seeing his name in the press and expects only a disinterested report....

... The "freedom of the press" guaranteed by the First Amendment, and as reflected in the Fourteenth, cannot be thought to insulate all press conduct from review and responsibility for harm inflicted. The majority would allow sanctions against such conduct only when it is morally culpable. I insist that it can also be reached when it creates a severe risk of irremediable harm to individuals involuntarily exposed to it and powerless to protect themselves against it. I would remand the case to the New York courts for possible retrial under that principle.

A constitutional doctrine which relieves the press of even this minimal responsibility in cases of this sort seems to me unnecessary and ultimately harmful to the permanent good health of the press itself. If the New York Times case has ushered in such a trend it will prove in its long-range impact to have done a disservice to the true values encompassed in the freedoms of speech and press.


The Court's holding here is exceedingly narrow. It declines to hold that the New York "Right of Privacy" statute is unconstitutional. I agree. The Court concludes, however, that the instructions to the jury in this case were fatally defective because they failed to advise the jury that a verdict for the plaintiffs could be predicated only on a finding of knowing or reckless falsity in the publication of the Life article. Presumably, the appellee is entitled to a new trial. If he can stand the emotional and financial burden, there is reason to hope that he will recover damages for the reckless and irresponsible assault upon himself and his family which this article represents. But he has litigated this case for 11 years. He should not be subjected to the burden of a new trial without significant cause. This does not exist. Perhaps the purpose of the decision here is to indicate that this Court will place insuperable obstacles in the way of recovery by persons who are injured by reckless and heedless assaults provided they are in print, and even though they are totally divorced from fact. If so, I should think that the Court would cast its decision in constitutional terms. Short of that purpose, with which I would strongly disagree, there is no reason here to order a new trial. The instructions in this case are acceptable even within the principles today announced by the Court.

I fully agree with the views of my Brethren who have stressed the need for a generous construction of the First Amendment. I, too, believe that freedom of the press, of speech, assembly, and religion, and the freedom to petition are of the essence of our liberty and fundamental to our values.... But I do not believe that whatever is in words, however much of an aggression it may be upon individual rights, is beyond the reach of the law, no matter how heedless of others' rights--how remote from public purpose, how reckless, irresponsible, and untrue it may be. I do not believe that the First Amendment precludes effective protection of the right of privacy--or, for that matter, an effective law of libel. I do not believe that we must or should, in deference to those whose views are absolute as to the scope of the First Amendment, be ingenious to strike down all state action, however circumspect, which penalizes the use of words as instruments of aggression and personal assault. There are great and important values in our society, none of which is greater than those reflected in the First Amendment, but which are also fundamental and entitled to this Court's careful respect and protection. Among these is the right to privacy, which has been eloquently extolled by scholars and members of this Court. Judge Cooley long ago referred to this right as the right "to be let alone." In 1890, Warren and Brandeis published their famous article "The Right to Privacy," in which they eloquently argued that the "excesses" of the press in "overstepping in every direction the obvious bounds of propriety and of decency" made it essential that the law recognize a right to privacy, distinct from traditional remedies for defamation, to protect private individuals against the unjustifiable infliction of mental pain and distress. A distinct right of privacy is now recognized, either as a "common-law" right or by statute, in at least 35 States. Its exact scope varies in the respective jurisdictions. It is, simply stated, the right to be let alone; to live one's life as one chooses, free from assault, intrusion or invasion except as they can be justified by the clear needs of community living under a government of law. As Mr. Justice Brandeis said in his famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States (1928), the right of privacy is "the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men." Privacy, then, is a basic right. The States may, by appropriate legislation and within proper bounds, enact laws to vindicate that right. Cf. Kovacs v. Cooper, (1949), sustaining a local ordinance regulating the use of sound trucks; and Breard v. Alexandria, (1951), sustaining a state law restricting solicitation in private homes of magazine subscriptions. Difficulty presents itself because the application of such state legislation may impinge upon conflicting rights of those accused of invading the privacy of others. But this is not automatically a fatal objection. Particularly where the right of privacy is invaded by words--by the press or in a book or pamphlet--the most careful and sensitive appraisal of the total impact of the claimed tort upon the congeries of rights is required. I have no hesitancy to say, for example, that where political personalities or issues are involved or where the event as to which the alleged invasion of privacy occurred is in itself a matter of current public interest, First Amendment values are supreme and are entitled to at least the types of protection that this Court extended in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). But I certainly concur with the Court that the greatest solicitude for the First Amendment does not compel us to deny to a State the right to provide a remedy for reckless falsity in writing and publishing an article which irresponsibly and injuriously invades the privacy of a quiet family for no purpose except dramatic interest and commercial appeal. My difficulty is that while the Court gives lip service to this principle, its decision, which it claims to be based on erroneous instructions, discloses hesitancy to go beyond the verbal acknowledgment.

The Court today does not repeat the ringing words of so many of its members on so many occasions in exaltation of the right of privacy. Instead, it reverses a decision under the New York "Right of Privacy" statute because of the "failure of the trial judge to instruct the jury that a verdict of liability could be predicated only on a finding of knowing or reckless falsity in the publication of the Life article." In my opinion, the jury instructions, although they were not a textbook model, satisfied this standard....

The courts may not and must not permit either public or private action that censors or inhibits the press. But part of this responsibility is to preserve values and procedures which assure the ordinary citizen that the press is not above the reach of the law--that its special prerogatives, granted because of its special and vital functions, are reasonably equated with its needs in the performance of these functions. For this Court totally to immunize the press--whether forthrightly or by subtle indirection--in areas far beyond the needs of news, comment on public persons and events, discussion of public issues and the like would be no service to freedom of the press, but an invitation to public hostility to that freedom. This Court cannot and should not refuse to permit under state law the private citizen who is aggrieved by the type of assault which we have here and which is not within the specially protected core of the First Amendment to recover compensatory damages for recklessly inflicted invasion of his rights.

Accordingly, I would affirm.