Hutchinson v. Proxmire

443 U.S. 111
Brief Filed: 2/79
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Year of Decision: 1979

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 475KB)

Issue

Whether a research scientist is a "public figure" for the purposes of libel law if he is supported by public funds, thereby rendering it difficult for a scientist to sue for libel

Index Topics

Defamation; Scientific Research (libel/slander)

Facts

This matter arose from a decision of the Seventh Circuit affirming the district court's grant of respondent's motion for summary judgment in an action alleging, inter alia, libel and slander. The lower courts concluded that the petitioner was a public figure for defamation purposes and that he had failed to carry the heavy evidentiary burden imposed on such persons. Petitioner, Dr. Hutchinson, is a research scientist who has devoted much of his professional career to the study of aggression in humans and animals. Respondent, William Proxmire, a United States Senator from Wisconsin, instituted a Golden Fleece of the Month Award to persons or organizations that spent tax dollars in the most dubious fashion. Proxmire presented an award to the government agencies that funded Dr. Hutchinson's research. In a press release, Proxmire ridiculed Dr. Hutchinson and his work, labeling the research nonsense and transparently worthless, and charged that Dr. Hutchinson had made a fortune through his grantsmanship.

The district court granted respondent's motion for summary judgment, partly on a finding that Dr. Hutchinson was a public figure and needed to prove that the alleged defamation was published with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. That court and the Seventh Circuit held that Dr. Hutchinson was a public figure because he had applied for and received federal funds to support his research, had published scholarly articles regarding his research, received news coverage of his work in the local press, and his reply to Proxmire's charges was published in some newspapers.

APA's Position

APA submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that: (1) the courts below not only misapplied the public figure doctrine, but also expanded the concept well beyond the parameters established by the Supreme Court; (2) Dr. Hutchinson was not a public figure because he did not voluntarily thrust himself into the vortex of a pubic controversy in an attempt to influence its outcome; and (3) the criteria adopted by the courts below impermissibly broadened the class of public figures recognized by the Supreme Court, since the mere application for public funds does not thrust an individual into the vortex of the controversy, the receipt of pubic funds does not make one a public figure, and access to the news media for rebuttal purposes is at most a minor consideration in determining a public figure.

Results

The Supreme Court agreed with APA that Dr. Hutchinson was not a public figure. After the Supreme Court decision, Hutchinson and Proxmire reached a settlement agreement in which Proxmire would publicly apologize and retract his statements and promise to stay out of similar situations in the future. Proxmire also paid Hutchinson $25,000.