Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)

Author: Justice Burger

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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)


The doctrines of the law of defamation have had a gradual evolution primarily in the state courts. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), and its progeny this Court entered this field.

Agreement or disagreement with the law as it has evolved to this time does not alter the fact that it has been orderly development with a consistent basic rationale. In today’s opinion, the Court abandons the traditional thread so far as the ordinary private citizen is concerned, and introduces the concept that the media will be liable for negligence in publishing defamatory statements with respect to such persons. Although I agree with much of what MR. JUSTICE WHITE states, I do not read the Court’s new doctrinal approach in quite the way he does. I am frank to say I do not know the parameters of a "negligence" doctrine as applied to the news media. Conceivably this new doctrine could inhibit some editors, as the dissents of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS and MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN suggest. But I would prefer to allow this area of law to continue to evolve as it has up to now with respect to private citizens, rather than embark on a new doctrinal theory which has no jurisprudential ancestry.

The petitioner here was performing a professional representative role as an advocate in the highest tradition of the law, and, under that tradition, the advocate is not to be invidiously identified with his client. The important public policy which underlies this tradition -- the right to counsel -- would be gravely jeopardized if every lawyer who takes an "unpopular" case, civil or criminal, would automatically become fair game for irresponsible reporters and editors who might, for example, describe the lawyer as a "mob mouthpiece" for representing a client with a serious prior criminal record, or as an "ambulance chaser" for representing a claimant in a personal injury action.

I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for reinstatement of the verdict of the jury and the entry of an appropriate judgment on that verdict.

1. A fortiori, I disagree with in Brother WHITE’s view that the States should have free rein to impose strict liability for defamation in cases not involving public persons.

2. A respected commentator has observed that factors other than purely legal constraints operate to control the press:

Traditions, attitudes, and general rules of political conduct are far more important controls. The fear of opening a credibility gap, and thereby lessening one’s influence, holds some participants in check. Institutional pressures in large organizations, including some of the press, have a similar effect; it is difficult for an organization to have an open policy of making intentionally false accusations.

T. Emerson, The System of Freedom of Expression 538 (1970). Typical of the press’ own ongoing self-evaluation is a proposal to establish a national news council, composed of members drawn from the public and the journalism profession, to examine and report on complaints concerning the accuracy and fairness of news reporting by the largest newsgathering sources. Twentieth Century Fund Task Force Report for a National News Council, A Free and Responsive Press (1973). See also Comment, The Expanding Constitutional Protection for the News Media from Liability for Defamation: Predictability and the New Synthesis, 70 Mich.L.Rev. 1547, 1569-1570 (1972).

3. The Court, taking a novel step, would not limit application of First Amendment protection to private libels involving issues of general or public interest, but would forbid the States from imposing liability without fault in any case where the substance of the defamatory statement made substantial danger to reputation apparent. As in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., 403 U.S. 29, 44 n. 12, 48-49, n. 17 (1971), I would leave open the question of what constitutional standard, if any, applies when defamatory falsehoods are published or broadcast concerning either a private or public person’s activities not within the scope of the general or public interest.

Parenthetically, my Brother WHITE argues that the Court’s view and mine will prevent a plaintiff -- unable to demonstrate some degree of fault -- from vindicating his reputation by securing a judgment that the publication was false. This argument overlooks the possible enactment of statutes, not requiring proof of fault, which provide for an action for retraction or for publication of a court’s determination of falsity if the plaintiff is able to demonstrate that false statements have been published concerning his activities. Cf. Note, Vindication of the Reputation of a Public Official, 80 Harv.L.Rev. 1730, 1739-1747 (1967). Although it may be that questions could be raised concerning the constitutionality of such statutes, certainly nothing I have said today (and, as I read the Court’s opinion, nothing said there) should be read to imply that a private plaintiff, unable to prove fault, must inevitably be denied the opportunity to secure a judgment upon the truth or falsity of statements published about him. Cf. Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., supra, at 47, and n. 15.


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Chicago: Burger, "Burger, J., Dissenting," Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974) in 418 U.S. 323 418 U.S. 355. Original Sources, accessed September 23, 2023,

MLA: Burger. "Burger, J., Dissenting." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), in 418 U.S. 323, page 418 U.S. 355. Original Sources. 23 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Burger, 'Burger, J., Dissenting' in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974). cited in 1974, 418 U.S. 323, pp.418 U.S. 355. Original Sources, retrieved 23 September 2023, from