In 1975, Senator William Proxmire introduced the ‘‘Golden Fleece of the Month Award’’ for organizations squandering federal funds. Early honors went to agencies sponsoring Ronald Hutchinson, a behavioral scientist studying monkey jaw clenching. Proxmire publicized the ‘‘award’’ in a congressional speech, a press release, and newsletters issued to constituents and people outside his home state. Where Hutchinson sued Proxmire for defaming his professional reputation, the senator argued the Constitution’s speech and debate clause protected the publications as legislative activity and the First Amendment guaranteed his right to criticize public figures.
The U.S. Supreme Court clarified that the Speech and Debate Clause preserved legislative independence, but did not throw a blanket over all activities outside Congress’s walls. Chief Justice Warren Burger ruled that the Constitution shielded Proxmire’s Senate speech, but did not immunize the newsletters and press release because informing the public was not essential to internal legislative and deliberative processes. Furthermore, the district court erred in summarily dismissing Hutchinson’s claims under the First Amendment, holding that he was a public figure who failed to show that the defendants acted with actual malice. ‘‘Actual malice’’ questions, Burger noted, require examining a defendant’s state of mind, which ‘‘does not readily lend itself to summary disposition.’’ Moreover, Hutchinson was not a public figure because his research position wielded little public influence and he only had limited access to mainstream media. Reversing the lower federal court rulings, the Supreme Court circumscribed the speech and debate clause’s protections to congressional members’ essential legislative functions on Capitol Hill.
RODNEY A. SMOLLA
See also Defamation and Free Speech; Freedom of Speech: Modern Period (1917–Present); Government Speech; Legislators’ Freedom of Speech; Public Officials; Speech of Government Employees