From May 1975 to May 1976, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a series of articles about Maurice Hepps, the principal stockholder of a corporation that owned a franchise of beverage and snack stores. Hepps was said to have connections to organized crime that unduly interfered with administrative and legislative state government. Hepps brought suit for defamation of character. In a five-to-four vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held that private figures, in matters of public concern, must prove that the allegedly defamatory statements are false.
In the majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and joined by Justices William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell, the court ruled that placing the burden of proving a statement true on a media defendant violates the U.S. Constitution. The Court, in rejecting the common-law presumption that defamatory statements are presumed to be false, held that the First Amendment protects true speech, thereby allowing discussion of public concern to be uninhibited. The court expressed concern that media defendants might be unable to prove the truth of some statements, even in cases in which the allegations are without merit. The dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist, argued that the majority’s holding would protect media defendants that act negligently or maliciously and prevent individuals from protecting their reputations. The Hepps case stands for the idea that private individuals bear the burden of proving allegedly defamatory statements false when the information is related to matters of public concern.
GILBERT D. MARTINEZ
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited