Curtis Publishing Company

Curtis Publishing Company published an article in their 23rd March, 1963 in their Saturday Evening Post (Merill 1975). The article alleged that Wallace Butts, who was the former football coach in the University of Georgia, had made a conspiracy with Paul Bryant, the University of Alabama football coach to fix a football match between the two teams in favor of Alabama in 1962. The source of the article, George Burnett, alleged that he had overheard a telephone conversation between the two coaches regarding the match fix. Butts won the libel suit that he had filed against Curtis Publishing who owned the periodical, and the case proceeded to trial, which came just after the court ruling on the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case. This led to the trial judge rejecting the case with claims that Butt was not a public official. However, Butt appealed this and the appeal court resolved that the issue should have challenged Butt earlier during trial which Curtis did not. According to the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case which was to be used as a benchmark for many more cases to come, judges had ruled that public officials who were involved in libel cases were required to show that the statements that they challenged were made with adequate knowledge that the information passed was false or was passed with a reckless disregard of is truth or falseness. The judges in the Butts vs. Curtis Publishing Company therefore argued that Butts case could not continue since Butts was not a public official. However, it was later to proceed on the bases that it involved public figures who were not public officials, hence was allowed to proceed. It also had reference to a University of Mississippi 1962 riot in which a political activist, Edwin Walker, who was a private citizen had been linked to the riot, having personally led the riot in an attempt to bar federal marshals from admitting African –Americans. Walker filed a suit which he won but did not receive compensation. This case was different from the Butts case which led to need for more original and independent ideas to effectively handle it. The reporter in Walker’s case was present at the scene while that in Butts’ case overheard the conversation over the phone.

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The Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling was in favor of Butts in 1967. In the ruling, the court considered that Butts not being a public official could recover from the damages inflicted by the article. The court accused Curtis of publishing an article whose source was not reliable and the publisher did not attempt to verify the authenticity of the information. The story was further not immediately newsworthy, unlike Walker’s case whose report was immediately newsworthy.

The final ruling demanded that the Saturday Evening Post should compensate Butts with $3.06 million for the damages caused by the article. However, the appeal that followed, lodged by Curtis saw the amount reduced to $460,000. Bryant who was also involved in the case was also compensated with $300,000, though the two had earlier sued the publishing company for $10 million apiece. It is alleged that the fines led to the death of Curtis publishing Co. 2 years after the compensation.


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