McDonald v. Smith
Decided on June 19, 1985; 472 US 479


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Petition Clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Petition Clause of the First Amendment provide absolute immunity to a defendant charged with expressing libelous and damaging falsehoods in letters to the President of the United States?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"In July 1981, respondent commenced a libel action against petitioner in state court under the common law of North Carolina. Respondent alleged that while he was being considered for the position of United States Attorney, petitioner wrote two letters to President Reagan. The complaint alleges that these letters 'contained false, slanderous, libelous, inflammatory and derogatory statements' concerning respondent... Respondent alleged that petitioner knew that these accusations were false, and that petitioner maliciously intended to injure respondent by undermining his prospect of being appointed United States Attorney.

The complaint alleges that petitioner mailed copies of the letters to Presidential Adviser Edwin Meese, Senator Jesse Helms, Representative W. E. Johnston, and three other officials in the Executive and Legislative Branches. It further alleges that petitioner's letters had their intended effect: respondent was not appointed United States Attorney, his reputation and career as an attorney were injured, and he 'suffered humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety and mental anguish.' Respondent sought compensatory and punitive damages of $1 million.

Petitioner removed the case to the United States District Court on the basis of diversity of citizenship. He then moved for judgment on the pleadings on the ground that the Petition Clause of the First Amendment provides absolute immunity. The District Court agreed with petitioner that his communications fell 'within the general protection afforded by the petition clause,' but held that the Clause does not grant absolute immunity from liability for libel. The Fourth Circuit, relying on this Court's decision in White v. Nicholls affirmed."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Opposing Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Brief of amici curiae urging reversal by Charles S. Sims filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union.

William A. Eagles argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was B. F. Wood.

Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were Paul R. Friedman and Geoffrey P. Miller.

IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The First Amendment guarantees 'the right of the people... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.' The right to petition is cut from the same cloth as the other guarantees of that Amendment, and is an assurance of a particular freedom of expression...

Although the values in the right of petition as an important aspect of self-government are beyond question, it does not follow that the Framers of the First Amendment believed that the Petition Clause provided absolute immunity from damages for libel. Early libel cases in state courts provide no clear evidence of the nature of the right to petition as it existed at the time the First Amendment was adopted; these cases reveal conflicting views of the privilege afforded expressions in petitions to government officials...

Nothing presented to us suggests that the Court's decision not to recognize an absolute privilege in 1845 should be altered; we are not prepared to conclude, 140 years later, that the Framers of the First Amendment understood the right to petition to include an unqualified right to express damaging falsehoods in exercise of that right.

To accept petitioner's claim of absolute immunity would elevate the Petition Clause to special First Amendment status. The Petition Clause, however, was inspired by the same ideals of liberty and democracy that gave us the freedoms to speak, publish, and assemble. These First Amendment rights are inseparable and there is no sound basis for granting greater constitutional protection to statements made in a petition to the President than other First Amendment expressions.

We hold that the Petition Clause does not require the State to expand this privilege into an absolute one. The right to petition is guaranteed; the right to commit libel with impunity is not."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 0 Pro vs. 8 Con

  • Burger, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. (Took no part in decision)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed in a 8-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.