Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

497 U.S. 1

Milkovich  v.  Lorain Journal Co.

No. 89-645  Argued: April 24, 1990. --- Decided: June 21, 1990


While petitioner Milkovich was a high school wrestling coach, his team was involved in an altercation at a match with another high school's team. Both he and School Superintendent Scott testified at an investigatory hearing before the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA), which placed the team on probation. They testified again during a suit by several parents, in which a county court overturned OHSAA's ruling. The day after the court's decision, respondent Lorain Journal Company's newspaper published a column authored by respondent Diadiun, which implied that Milkovich lied under oath in the judicial proceeding. Milkovich commenced a defamation action against respondents in the county court, alleging that the column accused him of committing the crime of perjury, damaged him in his occupation of teacher and coach, and constituted libel per se. Ultimately, the trial court granted summary judgment for respondents. The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed, considering itself bound by the State Supreme Court's determination in Superintendent Scott's separate action against respondents that, as a matter of law, the article was constitutionally protected opinion.


1. The First Amendment does not require a separate "opinion" privilege limiting the application of state defamation laws. While the Amendment does limit such application, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686, the breathing space that freedoms of expression require to survive is adequately secured by existing constitutional doctrine. Foremost, where a media defendant is involved, a statement on matters of public concern must be provable as false before liability can be assessed, Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 106 S.Ct. 1558, 89 L.Ed.2d 783, thus ensuring full constitutional protection for a statement of opinion having no provably false factual connotation. Next, statements that cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual are protected, see, e.g., Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn., Inc. v. Bresler, 398 U.S. 6, 90 S.Ct. 1537, 26 L.Ed.2d 6, thus assuring that public debate will not suffer for lack of "imaginative expression" or the "rhetorical hyperbole" which has traditionally added much to the discourse of this Nation. The reference to "opinion" in dictum in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 339-340, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3006-3007, 41 L.Ed.2d 789, was not intended to create a wholesale defamation exemption for "opinion." Read in context, the Gertz dictum is merely a reiteration of Justice Holmes' "marketplace of ideas" concept, see Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630, 40 S.Ct. 17, 22, 63 L.Ed. 1173. Simply couching a statement-"Jones is a liar"-in terms of opinion-"In my opinion Jones is a liar"-does not dispel the factual implications contained in the statement. Pp. 11-12.

2. A reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statements in the Diadiun column imply an assertion that Milkovich perjured himself in a judicial proceeding. The article did not use the sort of loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language that would negate the impression that Diadiun was seriously maintaining Milkovich committed perjury. Nor does the article's general tenor negate this impression. In addition, the connotation that Milkovich committed perjury is sufficiently factual that it is susceptible of being proved true or false by comparing, inter alia, his testimony before the OHSAA board with his subsequent testimony before the trial court. Pp. 21-22.

3. This decision balances the First Amendment's vital guarantee of free and uninhibited discussion of public issues with the important social values that underlie defamation law and society's pervasive and strong interest in preventing and redressing attacks upon reputation. Pp. 22-23.

46 Ohio App.3d 20, 545 N.E.2d 1320 (1989), reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, J., joined, post, p. 23.

Brent Lawson English, Cleveland, Ohio, for petitioner.

Richard D. Panza, Lorain, Ohio, for respondents.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).