Time, Inc. v. Hill

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385 U.S. 374 (1967), argued 27 Apr. 1966, reargued 18–19 Oct. 1966, decided 9 Jan. 1967 by vote of 5 to 4; Brennan for the Court, Black and Douglas concurring, Harlan concurring in part and dissenting in part, Fortas, joined by Warren and Clarke, in dissent. This case concerned a Life magazine article describing a Broadway play about the ordeal of a family trapped in their own house by escaped convicts. Life claimed that the play described events that had actually happened to the Hill family, which had in fact been held hostage several years before by escaped prisoners. The article was inaccurate in several nondefamatory but nevertheless deeply disturbing respects. Members of the Hill family sued for invasion of privacy under a New York statute.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Hill built upon the 1964 decision of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, in which the Court had held that plaintiffs who were public officials could not recover damages for defamation unless they could demonstrate that the defamation had been published with actual malice, “that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” (pp. 279–280). In Time, Inc. v. Hill the Court extended the application of the actual malice rule to actions alleging that a plaintiff's privacy had been invaded by “false reports of matters of public interest” (p. 388). In 1974 the Court held in Gertz v. Robert I. Welch, Inc. that private plaintiffs did not have to prove actual malice to recover damages in defamation suits, even if the publication at issue concerned matters of public interest. Since then, the courts have divided over the question of whether Gertz put limits on the holding in Time or whether defendants in false-light privacy actions should receive greater constitutional protection than defendants in defamation actions.

Robert C. Post

Subjects: Law.

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