BECKLEY NEWSPAPERS CORP. v. HANKS.
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF WEST
VIRGINIA, WYOMING COUNTY. No. 467.
Decided November 6, 1967.
Respondent brought this action in a West Virginia circuit court alleging that three editorials in petitioner's newspaper criticizing his official conduct as court clerk had libeled him. The jury had been instructed in part that it could find for respondent if it were shown that petitioner had published the editorials "with bad or corrupt motive," or "from personal spite, ill will or a desire to injure plaintiff." Respondent contended that there was sufficient proof for the jury to find that petitioner published the statements with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. The jury awarded respondent damages and the State Supreme Court of Appeals denied appellate review. Held: The Court's independent examination of the whole record does not reveal that any failure of petitioner to make a prior investigation constituted proof sufficient to present a jury question whether the statements were published with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. Cf. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 287 -288 (1964).
Certiorari granted; reversed and remanded.
Thurman Arnold and Jack A. Mann for petitioner.
Harry G. Camper, Jr., for respondent.
The petition for certiorari is granted.
Respondent Hanks is the elected Clerk of the Criminal and Circuit Courts of Raleigh County, West Virginia. He brought this libel action in the West Virginia Circuit Court, Wyoming County, alleging that during his reelection campaign he was libeled by three editorials, highly critical of his official conduct, which appeared in petitioner's morning newspaper. The jury returned a verdict for respondent and awarded him $5,000 damages. [389 U.S. 81, 82] The State Supreme Court of Appeals denied petitioner's application for appellate review.
Although this action was tried subsequent to the decisions of this Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964); Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64 (1964); Henry v. Collins, 380 U.S. 356 (1965); and Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966), and despite the fact that it was recognized at trial that the principles of New York Times were applicable, the case went to the jury on instructions which were clearly impermissible. The jury was instructed in part that it could find for the respondent if it were shown that petitioner had published the editorials "with bad or corrupt motive," or "from personal spite, ill will or a desire to injure plaintiff." Because petitioner failed to object to this erroneous interpretation of New York Times at trial, and in fact offered instructions which were themselves inadequate, the issue of these instructions is not before us. However, since it is clear that the jury verdict was rendered upon instructions which misstated the law and since petitioner has properly challenged the sufficiency of the evidence, we have undertaken an independent examination of the record as a whole "so as to assure ourselves that the judgment does not constitute a forbidden intrusion on the field of free expression." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra, at 285. See Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 156 -159 (1967) (opinion of MR. JUSTICE HARLAN); id., at 168-170 (opinion of THE CHIEF JUSTICE).
In New York Times we held that the Constitution forbids recovery of damages in a civil libel action by a public official, such as respondent, "for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with `actual malice' - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless [389 U.S. 81, 83] disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U.S., at 279 -280. Our examination of the whole record satisfies us that "the proof presented to show actual malice lacks the convincing clarity which the constitutional standard demands . . . ." 376 U.S., at 285 -286.
We put aside the question whether the proofs show that the allegedly libelous statements were false. If false, respondent did not and does not contend that petitioner published the statements with knowledge of their falsity. His contention was and is that the proofs were sufficient for the jury to find that petitioner published the statements with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. However, virtually the only evidence we find bearing on that question relates to one of the editorials critical of the opposition of respondent and another public official, Mrs. Elinor Hurt, president of the county board of health, to fluoridation of the local water supply. That editorial, captioned "The Fluoridation Situation Remains Unchanged," was directed primarily at Mrs. Hurt's opposition * but also included the following:
The judgment is reversed, and the case remanded to the Circuit Court of West Virginia, Wyoming County, for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
MR. JUSTICE FORTAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.