Members of the Mentor High school wrestling team were hospitalized during a fight at a Cleveland, Ohio high school wrestling match between Maple Heights High school and Mentor on February 8th, 1974.
Maple Heights wrestling coach, Mike Milkovich, was thought to have been a source of the tension caused between the Maple Heights team and crowd when he overtly criticized calls made by the referees during the match.
Maple Heights was subsequently put on probation for a year and was barred from competing in the following year’s state wrestling tournament during a hearing by the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA.)
After petitioning to OHSAA that Maple Heights had been denied due process, a second hearing was granted during November where Milkovich and H. Donald Scott, superintendent of the school district, testified and received a temporary injunction from the previous ruling.
Following the second hearing, the Daily Herald, Mentor’s daily newspaper published by the Lorain Journal Company, published an article by sportswriter Ted Diadiun about the hearing stating that Milkovich had lied under oath.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Lorain Journal Co. claiming he had been defamed by the accusation of perjury.
The initial trial court found in favor of the defendant stating that the article by Diadiun was nothing more than an opinion and could not be considered libelous. The court decided no “actual malice” had been done in accordance with the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) case.
Appealed to the Ohio Eleventh District Court of Appeals which found that “actual malice” had occurred.
Appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio which was dismissed the appeal stating that it held no constitutional significance.
A certiorari to the United States Supreme Court by the defendant was also denied in 1979.
The trial court found in favor of the defendants after referencing the Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974) case, stating that the plaintiff had not proven “actual malice” and that the article in question was an opinion and constitutionally protected. This decision was upheld by the appellate court.
The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the previous decision of the trial court.
A second certiorari to the U. S. Supreme Court was again denied in 1984.
A second action pursued by H. Donald Scott was under consideration by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1986 concerning whether the original article was actually an opinion. The State Supreme court found that it indeed was a protected opinion, affirmed by the Ohio Court of Appeals.
Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court was accepted in 1990. The Court voted, seven to two, in favor of Milkovich.
To what extent can an opinion be expressed without being considered libelous? Should there be a separate “opinion” privilege added to the First Amendment?
The Court voted in favor of Milkovich, seven to two, stating that the first amendment did not need an “opinion” privilege, such as in the Gertz case, to make exemptions for state defamation laws. They stated the defendant’s article clearly stated that Milkovich had perjured himself, and in no way addressed itself as an opinion.
The Court held that there is no need for a separate “opinion” privilege needed in the First Amendment that would limit the function of the defamation laws of individual states.