Torts II, Pages 934–939

Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton

Supreme Court of the United States, 1989

Facts:

A local newspaper that defendant was the publisher of ran a front-page story saying that plaintiff, a judicial candidate who was under investigation for bribery, had used dirty tricks.

Procedural History:

  • Jury found for plaintiff and awarded him $200,000 in damages. District court denied defendant's motion for summary judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

  • Court of appeals affirmed.

Issue:

Did defendant defame plaintiff with "actual malice"?

Defendant's Argument:

LexisNexis IconWestLaw LogoGoogle Scholar LogoPage 935, II
  1. while correctly stating the actual malice standard announced in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the court actually applied a less severe standard that merely required a showing of "'highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers.'"
  2. the court failed to make an independent de novo review of the entire record and therefore incorrectly relied on subsidiary facts implicitly established by the jury's verdict instead of drawing its own inferences from the evidence.

Reasoning:

"Malice" in the ordinary sense of the term is not enough for actual malice, nor is profit seeking. The New York Times rule must be applied. At a minimum, reckless disregard is needed, as defined in St. Amant. However, these concepts cannot be defined in singular definitions. They must be built on a case-by-case basis.

Public discussion of the qualifications of a candidate for elective office is probably the strongest possible case for application of the New York Times rule, as vigorous reportage of political campaigns is necessary for democratic institutions to function optimally.

There must be sufficient evidence to find that the defendant had a "high degree of awareness of probable falsity." It is not enough that the defendant did not investigate, even when a reasonable person would have done so. However, the fact that defendant purposefully avoided the truth is sufficient to establish reckless disregard.

While the court of appeals found that the jury may have found facts that established reckless disregard, it should have been decided, as it is evident, that the jury must have found certain facts. Among these are the falsity of defendant's witnesses' testimony, that plaintiff knew defendant took a lie detector test, and that defendant refused to listen to the tape of an interview of a key witness. This purposeful avoidance establishes reckless disregard and actual malice.

Holding:

Yes, defendant had actual malice. Affirmed.

Takeaway:

Failure to investigate before publishing, even when a reasonably prudent person would have done so, is not sufficient to establish reckless disregard.

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