The Warren Court (1953–69)

Freedom of Expression

How did the Warren Court extend the ruling of Times v. Sullivan?

The Warren Court expanded the libel law decision in Times v. Sullivan in the companion cases of Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts and Associated Press v. Walker (1967). In these decisions, the Court ruled that public figures, in addition to public officials like L. B. Sullivan in the Times case, must prove actual malice in a defamation case. In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “differentiation between ‘public figures’ and ‘public officials’ and adoption of separate standards of proof for each have no basis in law, logic, or First Amendment policy.” This ruling makes it harder for celebrities and other people in the public eye to sue for libel.

The same year the Court extended the Times v. Sullivan rule to an invasion of privacy action in Time, Inc. v. Hill. The case involved a Life magazine article about the play The Desperate Hours. The play dramatized a family of four that showed great heroism while being held hostage by three convicts. The magazine article reported that the play was based on an ordeal suffered by James Hill and his family.

However, in the Hill incident, the perpetrators did not harm the Hill family. In the play, the convicts beat both the father and son and the daughter suffered a “verbal sexual insult.” The Hills sued under a New York civil rights law protecting the right of privacy. Though the Time v. Hill case involved a New York statute, the case is cited for the proposition that plaintiffs suing for false-light invasion of privacy about matters of public importance must meet the actual malice standard required in defamation cases involving public officials.


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