Facts of the Case:
Gertz was an attorney hired by a family to sue a police officer who had killed the family's son. In a magazine called American Opinion, the John Birch Society accused Gertz of being a "Leninist" and a "Communist-fronter" because he chose to represent clients who were suing a law enforcement officer. Gertz lost his libel suit because a lower court found that the magazine had not violated the actual malice test for libel which the Supreme Court had established in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964).
Does the First Amendment allow a newspaper or broadcaster to assert defamatory falsehoods about an individual who is neither a public official nor a public figure?
The Court reversed the lower court decision and held that Gertz's rights had been violated. Justice Powell argued that the application of the New York Times v. Sullivan standard in this case was inappropriate because Gertz was neither a public official nor a public figure. In the context of the opinion, Powell advanced many lines of reasoning to establish that ordinary citizens should be allowed more protection from libelous statements than individuals in the public eye. However, continued Powell, the actual malice standard did not lose all significance in cases involving ordinary citizens as he advised states to use it in assessing claims for punitive damages by citizens suing for libel.