CURTIS PUBLISHING CO. v. BUTTS

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
37
Petitioner 
Curtis Publishing Co.
Respondent 
Wallace Butts
Consolidation 
No. 150, Associated Press v. Walker
Advocates
(argued the cause for the petitioner in No. 37)
(argued the cause for the respondent in No. 37)
(argued the cause for the respondent in No. 37)
(argued the cause for the petitioner in No. 150)
(argued the cause for the respondent in No. 150)
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Location: Legion Field
Facts of the Case 

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) the Court held that public officials in libel cases must show that a statement was made "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." These two cases concern libel as it pertains to public figures who are not public officials. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts concerns an article published in the March 23, 1963 edition of The Saturday Evening Post alleging that former University of Georgia football coach Wallace Butts conspired with University of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant to fix a 1962 football game in Alabama's favor. The article's source was George Burnett, an Atlanta insurance salesman who had allegedly overheard a telephone conversation between the coaches. Butts brought and won a libel suit against Curtis Publishing, owner of the periodical. Soon after the Court's ruling in New York Times, Curtis moved for a new trial. The trial judge rejected the argument because Butts was not a public official. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge's decision on the basis that Curtis had waived any constitutional challenges by not raising such questions at trial. Associated Press v. Walker concerns dispatch reports of rioting that occurred on the campus of the University of Mississippi on September 30, 1962. The dispatches, authored by a correspondent on the scene, reported that Edwin A. Walker, a private citizen and political activist, had personally led a violent crowd attempting to prevent federal marshals from enforcing the court- ordered enrollment of an African-American. Walker denied the report, and filed a libel suit in the state courts of Texas. A jury found in Walker's favor, but the judge in the case refused to award punitive damages, finding that there was no malicious intent. The judge also specifically noted that New York Times was inapplicable. On appeal, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals agreed. The Supreme Court of Texas declined to hear the case.

Question 

In light of the Court's ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, were the allegations made against Butts and Walker libelous?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for Butts, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice John M. Harlan, the Court noted significant differences between the circumstances of these cases and those of New York Times. In particular, criticism of Butts or Walker, unlike a government official, could not be conflated with criticism of public policy. Thus, the Court reasoned that public figures who are not public officials may recover damages for libel stemming from false reports based on "highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers." The Court concluded that Curtis' investigation of its allegations against Butts failed to meet this standard. The company printed a questionably reliable source's allegations without any attempt to verify his claims, and the story in question was not a pressing event or immediately newsworthy. The Court thus affirmed the lower courts' denial of a retrial. The situation in Butts contrasted with Walker, where the AP relied on a correspondent on the scene of an event that was immediately newsworthy. The Court thus denied Walker's claims to damages.

Cite this Page
CURTIS PUBLISHING CO. v. BUTTS. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 18 December 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1966/1966_37%23argument>.
CURTIS PUBLISHING CO. v. BUTTS, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1966/1966_37%23argument (last visited December 18, 2014).
"CURTIS PUBLISHING CO. v. BUTTS," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1966/1966_37%23argument.