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Hutchinson v. Proxmire


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443 U.S. 111 (1979), argued 17 Apr., 1979, decided 26 June 1979 by vote of 7 to 1 to 1; Burger for the Court, Stewart concurring in part and dissenting in part, Brennan in dissent. This case explored the scope of protection afforded members of Congress by the Constitution's Speech and Debate Clause (Art. 1, sec. 6). In addition, the Court revisited the question of who was a “public figure” when determining the standard of proof in libel claims.

The case centered on the “Golden Fleece Award” bestowed by Senator William Proxmire on federal agencies he judged guilty of wasteful spending. An award was given to several agencies funding the research of Dr. Ronald Hutchinson, a psychologist developing an objective measure of aggression through experimentation on monkeys. Proxmire announced the award on the floor of the Senate, while noting it in a press release, his newsletter, media interviews, and other settings. Claiming “emotional anguish.” Hutchinson sued Proxmire for defamation, asserting that his reputation had been damaged, his contractual relations interfered with, and his privacy invaded.

The Court narrowly viewed protected legislative acts under the Speech and Debate Clause. Immunity did not extend to newsletters, press releases, and activities not essential to the Senate's deliberations. Such activities did not fall under the Senate's informing function since they involved views and actions of one member and not collective chamber activity. Further, Hutchinson was not a “public figure,” since he was thrust into the limelight by Proxmire's actions and did not personally seek it. Consequently, following New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), a lesser standard of proof than actual malice could prevail for Hutchinson. Justice William Brennan dissented from this narrow view of privileged legislative acts. A legislator's criticism of governmental expenditures, whatever its form, he argued, was protected by the Speech and Debate Clause.

Elliot E. Slotnick

Subjects: Law.


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