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NBC And The Intentional Infliction of Mental Or Emotional Distress

Thursday, April 19, 2007  |  posted by Hugh Hewitt
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There is a tort —the intentional infliction of mental or emotional distress— which punishes via civil liability parties whose outrageous conduct injures the emotional well-being of private parties.  It is not much favored in the law, but it is there in most jurisdictions, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a parent or spouse of one of the victims bring such a claim against NBC for its conduct yesterday as a vehicle to discover exactly what was said and done inside the news organization and to demonstrate that the public has lost its patience with the self-appointed lords of the public airwaves.  The tort generally requires four elements:1) the defendant(s) must act intentionally or recklessly; (2) the defendants’ conduct must be extreme and outrageous; and (3) the conduct must be the cause (4) of severe emotional distress.

I will ask Eugene Volokh and others on today’s program what they think fo the merits of such a claim (a necessarily complex question given that much would depend upon the jurisdiction in which it was filed), but don’t be too quick to assume that the First Amendment protects NBC in this instance.  The closest Suprme Court case on point is the 1988 decision in Hustler v. Falwell, which while protected the right to satirize public figures in repuslive ways said nothing about news organizations obligations towards victims.  Here is an excerpt from the Falwell opinion by then Chief Justice Rehnquist:

This case presents us with a novel question involving First Amendment limitations upon a State’s authority to protect its citizens from the intentional infliction of emotional distress. We must decide whether a public figure may recover damages for emotional harm caused by the publication of an ad parody offensive to him, and doubtless gross and repugnant in the eyes of most. Respondent would have us find that a State’s interest in protecting public figures from emotional distress is sufficient to deny First Amendment protection to speech that is patently offensive and is intended to inflict emotional injury, even when that speech could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved. This we decline to do.

At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. “The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty — and thus a good unto itself — but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.” We have therefore been particularly vigilant to ensure that individual expressions of ideas remain free from governmentally imposed sanctions. The First Amendment recognizes no such thing as a “false” idea. As Justice Holmes wrote, “When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market . . . .”

The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are “intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large.” Justice Frankfurter put it succinctly when he said that “one of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures.” Such criticism, inevitably, will not always be reasoned or moderate; public figures as well as public officials will be subject to “vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks.”

Of course, this does not mean that any speech about a public figure is immune from sanction in the form of damages. Since New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra, we have consistently ruled that a public figure may hold a speaker liable for the damage to reputation caused by publication of a defamatory falsehood, but only if the statement was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not….”

Here the State seeks to prevent not reputational damage, but the severe emotional distress suffered by the person who is the subject of an offensive publication. In respondent’s view, and in the view of the Court of Appeals, so long as the utterance was intended to inflict emotional distress, was outrageous, and did in fact inflict serious emotional distress, it is of no constitutional import whether the statement was a fact or an opinion, or whether it was true or false. It is the intent to cause injury that is the gravamen of the tort, and the State’s interest in preventing emotional harm simply outweighs whatever interest a speaker may have in speech of this type.

Generally speaking the law does not regard the intent to inflict emotional distress as one which should receive much solicitude, and it is quite understandable that most if not all jurisdictions have chosen to make it civilly culpable where the conduct in question is sufficiently “outrageous.” But in the world of debate about public affairs, many things done with motives that are less than admirable are protected by the First Amendment.

“Debate on public issues will not be uninhibited if the speaker must run the risk that it will be proved in court that he spoke out of hatred; even if he did speak out of hatred, utterances honestly believed contribute to the free interchange of ideas and the ascertainment of truth.”

Thus while such a bad motive may be deemed controlling for purposes of tort liability in other areas of the law, we think the First Amendment prohibits such a result in the area of public debate about public figures.

and

Respondent contends, however, that the caricature in question here was so “outrageous” as to distinguish it from more traditional political cartoons. There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above, and a rather poor relation at that. If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An “outrageousness” standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.

“The fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. For it is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.”

Admittedly, these oft-repeated First Amendment principles, like other principles, are subject to limitations. In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568 (1942), we held that a state could lawfully punish an individual for the use of insulting ” fighting’ words — those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” But the sort of expression involved in this case does not seem to us to be governed by the exception to the general First Amendment principles stated above.

The Court of Appeals interpreted the jury’s finding to be that the ad parody “was not reasonably believable,” and in accordance with our custom we accept this finding. Respondent is thus relegated to his claim for damages awarded by the jury for the intentional infliction of emotional distress by “outrageous” conduct. But for reasons heretofore stated this claim cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, form a basis for the award of damages when the conduct in question is the publication of a caricature such as the ad parody involved here. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly Reversed.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision in the case is here.

I welcome e-mails from practioners who have brought such cases as to how they would frame the claim and the likelihood of its getting to a jury for disposition.The Virginia Suprme Court summarized the law in the Commonwealth in 2000 as follows:

We first recognized the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress in Womack v. Eldridge, 215 Va. 338, 210 S.E.2d 145 (1974). We held that a plaintiff may recover damages for emotional distress resulting from a non-tactile tort if he alleges and proves by clear and convincing evidence that: (1) the wrongdoer’s conduct is intentional or reckless; (2) the conduct is outrageous and intolerable; (3) the wrongful conduct and the emotional distress are causally connected; and (4) the resulting distress is severe. 215 Va. at 342, 210 S.E.2d at 148; accord Delk, 259 Va. at 136, 523 S.E.2d at 833; Jordan v. Shands, 255 Va. 492, 498-99, 500 S.E.2d 215, 218-19 (1998); Russo v. White, 241 Va. 23, 26, 400 S.E.2d 160, 162 (1991).

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