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Greenbelt Co-Op. Publ. Assn., Inc. v. Bresler, 398 U.S. 6 (1970)

Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v. Bresler

No. 413

Argued February 24-25, 1970

Decided May 18, 1970

398 U.S. 6


At public meetings before the Greenbelt, Maryland, City Council, the efforts of respondent, a prominent real estate developer and state legislator, to secure zoning variances for certain land he owned while the city was trying to acquire other land of his on which to build a school were vigorously discussed. In publishing in their newspaper full accounts of the meetings, petitioners reported that various citizens had characterized respondent's negotiating position as "blackmail." Respondent, concededly a "public figure," brought this libel action against petitioners for publishing the reports notwithstanding their knowledge that he had not committed the crime of blackmail. The trial judge instructed the jury that respondent could recover if petitioners' publications had been made with malice (defined as including "spite, hostility, or deliberate intention to harm") or reckless disregard of whether they were true or false, and that malice could be found from the "language" of the publication itself. The jury found for respondent, and the judgment was affirmed on appeal.


1. The trial court's instructions, which permitted the jury to find liability merely on the basis of the reported hostile remarks made during a debate on a public issue, violated the First Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment, whether respondent is considered to be a "public official" or a "public figure." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254; Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U. S. 130. Pp. 398 U. S. 8-11.

2. In the circumstances of this case, where it is undisputed that petitioners' reports of the meetings were accurate, the word "blackmail" was not slanderous when spoken, or libelous when reported by petitioners, as there is no evidence whatsoever that the word was used to impute a crime to respondent or was intended as more than a vigorous epithet. Pp. 398 U. S. 11-14.

253 Md. 324, 252 A.2d 755, reversed and remanded.

Page 398 U. S. 7

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