497 U.S. 1 (1990), argued 24 Apr. 1990, decided 21 June 1990 by vote of 7 to 2. Rehnquist for the Court, Brennan, joined by Marshall, in dissent. This case demonstrated the complexity of late twentieth-century defamation law. In 1975 a high school coach sued a sports columnist for suggesting that the coach had lied during an investigation of a post-meet brawl. For nearly fifteen years, the case bounced, back and forth, through Ohio's courts until the Lorain Journal finally secured a summary judgment on the grounds that the sports column was a constitutionally protected opinion.
The Supreme Court overturned this holding and sent the case back for trial on the merits. According to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, some courts, such as those in Ohio, mistakenly believed Gertz v. Welch (1974) created special, First Amendment protection for any libelous statement that might be labeled an “opinion.” Nothing in Gertz, according to Rehnquist, justified such a constitutionally based defense. Columns that implied any defamatory assertions, statements that could be proved to be true or false, might provide the basis for a libel suit, even by public officials. Plaintiffs, of course, still had to meet all of the strict constitutional protections set forth in other cases, and Rehnquist thus used Milkovich to restate the constitutionally based defense available in defamation cases.
Justice William Brennan also rejected claims of a separate privilege for “opinion” but dissented from the holding that the sports column implied any factual claims; it simply offered the writer's “conjecture” about the coach's behavior, not any implications of fact, and was a constitutionally protected publication.
Norman L. Rosenberg