FAN 101.1 (First Amendment News) Merrick Garland, law clerk to Justice Brennan when Hutchinson v. Proxmire (1979) was decided
Today, President Obama nominated D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland to serve as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court.
During that Term the Court decided Hutchinson v. Proxmire (argued April 17, decided June 26, 1979). The vote was 8-1 with Chief Justice Warren Burger writing for the majority and Justice Brennan writing in dissent.
Facts in the Case: “In early 1975, Senator William Proxmire implemented what he called the “Golden Fleece Award of the Month.” The award was given out to governmental agencies which sponsored programs and research that Proxmire found to be a waste of tax dollars. One Golden Fleece went to federal agencies sponsoring the research of Ronald Hutchinson, a behavioral scientist. Proxmire detailed the “nonsense” of Hutchinson’s research on the floor of the Senate, in conferences with his staff, and in a newsletter sent to over 100,000 of his constituents. Hutchinson sued for libel, arguing that Proxmire’s statements defamed his character and caused him to endure financial loss.”
Issues: “The petition for certiorari raises three questions. One involves the scope of the Speech or Debate Clause; another involves First Amendment claims; a third concerns the appropriateness of summary judgment, embracing both a constitutional issue and a state-law issue.”
First Amendment Ruling: Petitioner is not a “public figure” so as to make the “actual malice” standard of proof of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan applicable. Neither the fact that local newspapers reported the federal grants to petitioner for his research nor the fact that he had access to the news media as shown by reports of his response to the announcement of the Golden Fleece Award, demonstrates that he was a public figure prior to the controversy engendered by that award. His access, such as it was, came after the alleged libel and was limited to responding to the announcement of the award. Those charged with alleged defamation cannot, by their own conduct, create their own defense by making the claimant a public figure. Nor is the concern about public expenditures sufficient to make petitioner a public figure, petitioner at no time having assumed any role of public prominence in the broad question of such concern.
Justice Brennan’s Dissent: “I disagree with the Court’s conclusion that Senator Proxmire’s newsletters and press releases fall outside the protection of the speech-or-debate immunity. In my view, public criticism by legislators of unnecessary governmental expenditures, whatever its form, is a legislative act shielded by the Speech or Debate Clause. I would affirm the judgment below for the reasons expressed in my dissent in Gravel v. United States (1972).”
Counsel in the Supreme Court:
- Michael E. Cavanaugh argued the cause and filed a briefs for Petitioner.
- Alan Raywid argued the cause and filed a brief for Respondents.
- Bruce J. Montgomery and John D. Lane filed a brief for the American Psychological Association et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.
- Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Richard M. Schmidt, Jr., for the American Society of Newspaper Editors et al.
- Chester H. Smith for Warren G. Magnuson et al. Stanley M. Brand filed a brief for Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, et al.