In Harte-Hanks Communications v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657 (1989), the Supreme Court further clarified its treatment of libel under the First Amendment by deciding that public figures can establish a claim for libel by showing that a publisher acted with “reckless disregard” as to the truth or falsity of a statement. The Court also clarified that a reviewing court in a libel case must conduct an “independent examination” of the record pursuant to Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc. (1984). The Court upheld the First Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that a newspaper article was defamatory, false, and published with actual malice even though no separate determination of malice had been substantiated.

Connaughton sued a local newspaper for libel

Daniel Connaughton, an unsuccessful candidate for the position of Municipal Judge of Hamilton, Ohio, had sued Harte-Hanks Communications, the owner of a local newspaper called the Journal News, which had supported his opponent, for libel. Connaughton charged that the paper had falsely alleged that he had acted unethically, lied, and extorted witnesses.

Court upheld libel rulings

The Supreme Court reviewed this case because the method used by the lower court in making its determination was contested. In a libel case, a reviewing court must “exercise independent judgment and determine whether the record establishes actual malice with convincing clarity.” This means the appeals court has its own responsibility in reviewing cases, to determine, from the record, whether or not malice was established in the trial court. In Harte-Hanks, the appeals judge simply used the same rationale made by the trial court and reassessed the facts. When the Supreme Court received this case, the justices independently reviewed the facts of the case based on the record and upheld the rulings of the trial and appeals courts.

Court re-examined libel of public figures to include reckless disregard for truth

The Court also took the opportunity to re-examine libel of a public figure. While private figures can sue for libel and win by merely proving an offensive story published was false, public figures are held to a higher standard because of their resources to respond to defamatory claims. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Court established the standard of “actual malice” in cases of public figures. This standard required that public figures suing for defamation must demonstrate that the defendant acted with actual malice, meaning he or she intended to cause harm by publishing a story that was false or with “reckless disregard” for its truth.

In Harte-Hanks, the Court found that there was reckless disregard for the truth because when the paper published the article, it still had serious doubts about the legitimacy of the claims from the main witness. The Court allowed the claim to be established by showing that the paper had published the story without any effort to determine whether it was true.

This decision, therefore, affirms that a public figure can demonstrate libel by showing that the publisher allowed printing with “reckless disregard for the truth.” Journalists are protected under the First Amendment but still have the responsibility to check for accuracy. Harte-Hanks thus allows public figures defamed by a journalist who did not reasonably verify the facts of a story to seek redress.

This article was originally published in 2009. Ashley Campbell was a student at Muskingum University. Walter Huber is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Muskingum University. He serves as the Director of the University's Center for Regional Planning and Development.

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