HUTCHINSON V. PROXMIRE, 443 U. S. 111 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111 (1979)

Hutchinson v. Proxmire

No. 78-680

Argued April 17, 1979

Decided June 26, 1979

443 U.S. 111


Respondent United States Senator publicizes examples of wasteful governmental spending by awarding his "Golden Fleece of the Month Award." One such award was given to federal agencies that had funded petitioner scientist's study of emotional behavior in which he sought an objective measure of aggression, concentrating upon the behavior patterns of certain animals. The award was announced in a speech prepared with the help of respondent legislative assistant, the text of which was incorporated in a widely distributed press release. Subsequently, the award was also referred to in newsletters sent out by the Senator, in a television interview program on which he appeared, and in telephone calls made by the legislative assistant to the sponsoring federal agencies. Petitioner sued respondents in Federal District Court for defamation, alleging, inter alia, that in making the award and publicizing it nationwide, respondents had damaged him in his professional and academic standing. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause afforded absolute immunity for investigating the funding of petitioner's research, for the speech in the Senate, and for the press release, since it fell within the "informing function" of Congress. The court further held that petitioner was a "public figure" for purposes of determining respondents' liability; that respondents were protected by the First Amendment, thereby requiring petitioner to prove "actual malice"; and that, based on the depositions, affidavits, and pleadings, there was no genuine issue of material fact on the issue of actual malice, neither respondents' failure to investigate nor unfair editing and summarizing being sufficient to establish "actual malice." Finally, the court held that, even if petitioner were found to be a "private person," relevant state law required a summary judgment for respondents. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause protected the statements made in the press release and newsletters and that, although the followup telephone calls and the statements made on television were not protected by that Clause, they were protected by the First Amendment, since petitioner was a "public figure," and that on the record there was no showing of "actual malice."

Page 443 U. S. 112


1. While this Court's practice is to avoid reaching constitutional questions if a dispositive nonconstitutional ground is available, special considerations in this case mandate that the constitutional questions first be resolved. If respondents have immunity under the Speech or Debate Clause, no other questions need be considered. And where it appears that the Court of Appeals would not affirm the District Court's state law holding, so that the appeal could not be decided without reaching the First Amendment issue, that issue will also be reached here. Pp. 443 U. S. 122-123.

2. The Speech or Debate Clause does not protect transmittal of information by individual Members of Congress by press releases and newsletters. Pp. 443 U. S. 123-133.

(a) There is nothing in the history of the Clause or its language suggesting any intent to create an absolute privilege from liability or suit for defamatory statements made outside the legislative Chambers; precedents support the conclusion that a Member may be held liable for republishing defamatory statements originally made in the Chamber. Pp. 443 U. S. 127-130.

(b) Neither the newsletters nor the press release here was "essential to the deliberation of the Senate," and neither was part of the deliberative process. Gravel v. United States, 408 U. S. 606; Doe v. McMillan, 412 U. S. 306. P. 443 U. S. 130.

(c) The newsletters and press release were not privileged as part of the "informing function" of Members of Congress to tell the public about their activities. Individual Members' transmittal of information about their activities by press releases and newsletters is not part of the legislative function or the deliberations that make up the legislative process; in contrast to voting and preparing committee reports, which are part of Congress' function to inform itself, newsletters and press releases are primarily means of informing those outside t.he legislative forum, and represent the views and will of a single Member. Doe v. McMillan, supra, distinguished. Pp. 443 U. S. 132-133.

3. Petitioner is not a "public figure" so as to make the "actual malice" standard of proof of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254, 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

Page 443 U. S. 113

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. Pp. 443 U. S. 133-136.

579 F.2d 1027, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J.,delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, and in all but n. 10 of which STEWART, J., joined. STEWART, J., filed a statement concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 443 U. S. 136. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 443 U. S. 136.

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