Dun and Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc.
472 U.S. 749 (1985)
Dun was a credit reporting
agency. They reported that Greenmoss had filed for bankruptcy (thereby
ruining Greenmoss' credit.)
This turned out to be
untrue. Dun later sent out a retraction, but Greenmoss' reputation had
already been damaged.
Greenmoss sued for defamation
The Trial Court found for
Greenmoss and awarded compensatory and punitive damages. Dun appealed.
The jury was not given any
instructions about what level of fault was required before awarding
Dun argued that the 1st
Amendment and the right of free
speech meant that in order to be held libel for publishing
false information, there must be a showing that they had actual malice.
New York Times v.
Sullivan (376 U.S. 254 (1964))
found that a newspaper couldn't be libel for damages unless the
statements were made with actual malice (aka with
knowledge that the statements are false or in reckless disregard of
their truth or falsity.)
The Appellate Court awarded a
new trial. Greenmoss appealed.
The Vermont Supreme Court reversed
and canceled the new trial. Dun appealed.
The US Supreme Court affirmed.
The US Supreme Court found
that, unlike Sullivan (a city official), Greenmoss was a private figure.
The Court found that 1st
Amendment interests were less
controlling in matters of a purely private concern than matters that are
a public interest.
Because Dun's 1st
Amendment right to defame a private
figure was less than their right to defame a public figure, there was no
requirement of actual malice to sustain a defamation suit.
Basically, this case says that
if you publish something about a public figure that turns out to be false, you can't be sued
for libel unless you were acting maliciously or knew it was untrue.
However, if you publish something about a private figure that turns out to be false, you can be sued, even though you thought it was true at