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Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc.


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501 U.S. 496 (1991), argued 14 Jan. 1991, decided 20 June 1991 by vote of 7 to 2; Kennedy for the Court, White, joined by Scalia, in partial dissent. In Masson the Supreme Court had to decide an unusual issue for the first time: the extent to which a journalist's “deliberate alteration” of an interviewee's words is protected by the First Amendment. Janet Malcolm had altered the words of a psychiatrist in an allegedly libelous manner. One of the six passages considered by the Court mistakenly quoted Dr. Jeffrey Masson describing himself as an “intellectual gigolo.” The district court rendered summary judgment in favor of the New Yorker with respect to all of the contested alterations. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, ruling in the New Yorker's favor by applying a “substantial truth” test to the alterations: they were protected by the First Amendment so long as they were “rational interpretations” of the actual statements. The Supreme Court reversed.

Under the prevailing First Amendment standards established in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), libelous remarks about public figures are not actionable unless they are made with “knowledge of falsity” or “reckless disregard” of the truth (pp. 279–280). After acknowledging that alterations of quotations could harm reputation, Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected Masson's argument that any alteration other than grammatical or syntactical changes constitutes knowledge of falsity; such “technical distinctions” are “unworkable” (p. 2432). He also rejected the Court of Appeals’ standard for encouraging journalistic irresponsibility.

Instead, the Court ruled that a deliberate alteration constituted knowledge of falsity if it “results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement” (p. 2433). Applying this test, the majority held that most of the contested passages created issues of fact for the jury as to truth or falsity, and remanded the case.

In partial dissent, Justice Byron White agreed with the reversal, but argued that the majority's test permitted irresponsibility. Malcolm's alterations, in his judgment, amounted to falsehood “by any definition of the term” (p. 2437).

Donald A. Downs

Subjects: Law.


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