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In the 1960s, the Nelson family hired a prominent Chicago attorney named Elmer Gertz to bring a civil suit against a Chicago police officer for killing their son.
While litigation was ongoing, American Opinion magazine published a piece alleging that Gertz had masterminded the officer’s criminal prosecution as part of a larger scheme to smear law enforcement. The article contained numerous false statements, and the editor had not verified the material before publication.
Gertz sued for defamation, and a jury awarded him $50,000. The magazine contested the verdict, and the lower court sided with it on the ground that the magazine had not acted with actual malice when it published the article.
The United States Supreme Court took up the case in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), to determine whether a publisher of defamatory material against a private person can avoid liability on First Amendment grounds.
In a split decision, the Court concluded that the actual-malice standard did not apply in cases of defamation against private individuals. Rather, states were free to set the standard of care required of publishers, provided the standard required some degree of fault.
This case remains significant, as the Court made clear that the actual-malice standard applied only to defamation cases involving public figures and officials, not private people.