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Roger Townsend's  Legal Resources Criminal Libel



MASSON v. NEW YORKER MAGAZINE, INC., 501 U.S. 496 (1991)

From the Legal Information Institute and Project Hermes



NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been pre- pared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.






certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 89-1799. Argued January 14, 1991 -- Decided June 20, 1991


Petitioner Masson, a psychoanalyst, became disillusioned with Freudian psychology while serving as Projects Director of the Sigmund Freud Ar- chives, and was fired after advancing his own theories. Thereafter, re- spondent Malcolm, an author and contributor to respondent The New Yorker, a magazine, taped several interviews with Masson and wrote a lengthy article on his relationship with the Archives. One of Malcolm's narrative devices consists of enclosing lengthy passages attributed to Masson in quotation marks. Masson allegedly expressed alarm about several errors in those passages before the article was published. After its publication, and with knowledge of Masson's allegations that it con- tained defamatory material, respondent Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., published the work as a book, which portrayed Masson in a most unflattering light.

He brought an action for libel under California law in the Federal Dis- trict Court, concentrating on passages alleged to be defamatory, six of which are before this Court. In each instance, the quoted statement does not appear in the taped interviews. The parties dispute whether there were additional untaped interviews, the notes from which Malcolm allegedly transcribed. The court granted respondents' motion for sum- mary judgment. It concluded that the alleged inaccuracies were sub- stantially true or were rational interpretations of ambiguous conversa- tions, and therefore did not raise a jury question of actual malice, which is required when libel is alleged by a public figure. The Court of Ap- peals affirmed. The court found, among other things, that one pas- sage -- in which Masson was quoted as saying that Archive officials had considered him an "intellectual gigolo" while the tape showed that he said he "was much too junior within the hierarchy of analysis for these important . . . analysts to be caught dead with [him]" -- was not defama- tory and would not be actionable under the "incremental harm" doctrine.


1. The evidence presents a jury question whether Malcolm acted with requisite knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to the truth or fal- sity of five of the passages. Pp. 11-27.


(a) As relevant here, the First Amendment limits California's libel law by requiring that a public figure prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the defamatory statement with actual malice.

However, in place of the term actual malice, it is bet- ter practice that jury instructions refer to publication of a statement with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity. Pp. 11-13.


(b) A trier of fact in this case could find that the reasonable reader would understand the quotations attributed to Masson to be nearly ver- batim reports of his statements.

In general, quotation marks indicate a verbatim reproduction, and quotations add authority to a statement and credibility to an author's work.

A fabricated quotation may injure repu- tation by attributing an untrue factual assertion to the speaker, or by indicating a negative personal trait or an attitude the speaker does not hold.

While some quotations do not convey that the speaker actually said or wrote the quoted material, such is not the case here. Malcolm's work gives the reader no clue that the quotations are anything but the reproductions of actual conversations, and the work was published in a magazine that enjoyed a reputation for scrupulous factual inquiry. These factors could lead a reader to take the quotations at face value. Pp. 13-15.


(c) The common law of libel overlooks minor inaccuracies and con- centrates upon substantial truth.

Thus, a deliberate alteration of a plaintiff's words does not equate with knowledge of falsity for purposes of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-280, and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 341, 342, unless it results in a mate- rial change in the statement's meaning.

While the use of quotations to attribute words not in fact spoken is important to that inquiry, the idea that any alteration beyond correction of grammar or syntax by itself proves falsity is rejected.

Even if a statement has been recorded, the existence of both a speaker and a reporter, the translation between two media, the addition of punctuation, and the practical necessity to edit and make intelligible a speakers' perhaps rambling comments, make it misleading to suggest that a quotation will be reconstructed with com- plete accuracy.

However, if alterations give a different meaning to a speaker's statements, bearing upon their defamatory character, then the device of quotations might well be critical in finding the words action- able. Pp. 15-20.


(d) Although the Court of Appeals applied a test of substantial truth, it erred in going one step further and concluding that an altered quotation is protected so long as it is a "rational interpretation" of the actual statement.

The protection for rational interpretation serves First Amendment principle by allowing an author the interpretive li- cense that is necessary when relying upon ambiguous sources; but where a writer uses a quotation that a reasonable reader would conclude pur- ports to be a verbatim repetition of the speaker's statement, the quota- tion marks indicate that the author is not interpreting the speaker's ambiguous statement, but is attempting to convey what the speaker said. Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279; Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485, distinguished. Pp. 20-22.


(e) In determining whether Masson has shown sufficient falsifica- tion to survive summary judgment, it must be assumed, except where otherwise evidenced by the tape recordings' transcripts, that he is correct in denying that he made the statements Malcolm attributed to him, and that Malcolm reported with knowledge or reckless disregard of the differences between what he said and what was quoted. Malcolm's typewritten notes should not be considered, since Masson denied making the statements, and since the record contains substantial additional evi- dence to support a jury determination under a clear and convincing evi- dence standard that Malcolm deliberately or recklessly altered the quo- tations. While she contests Masson's allegations, only a trial on the merits will resolve the factual dispute. Pp. 22-23.


(f) Five of the six published passages differ materially in meaning from the tape recorded statements so as to create an issue of fact for a jury as to falsity. Whether the "intellectual gigolo" passage is defama- tory is a question of California law, and to the extent that the Court of Appeals based its conclusion on the First Amendment, it was mistaken.

Moreover, an "incremental harm" doctrine -- which measures the incre- mental reputational harm inflicted by the challenged statements beyond the harm imposed by the nonactionable remainder of the publication -- is not compelled as a matter of First Amendment protection for speech, since it does not bear on whether a defendant has published a statement with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Pp. 23-27.


2. On remand, the Court of Appeals should consider Masson's argu- ment that the District Court erred in granting summary judgment to the New Yorker Magazine, Inc., and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., on the basis of their respective relations with Malcolm or the lack of any independent actual malice, since the court failed to reach his argument because of its disposition with respect to Malcolm. P. 27.


895 F. 2d 1535, reversed and remanded.


Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, and Souter, JJ., joined, and in Parts I, II-A, II-D, and III-A of which White and Scalia, JJ., joined. White, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Scalia, J., joined.


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