clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


A record $3 million libel award against CBS that the Supreme Court has refused to disturb is not likely to have widespread impact on the news media, says an authority on libel law.

Henry Kaufman of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York City said the case does not establish a significant precedent because the facts involved are unique.But Kaufman did say that the case, stemming from a broadcast on a CBS-owned television station in Chicago, changes the psychological landscape.

"This is the first libel award that has broken through the psychological $1 million barrier on appeal, the first that has been able to make it through the process intact," he said.

Kaufman, whose organization is funded by the news media, expressed disappointment along with CBS officials that the Supreme Court on Monday left the libel judgment intact.

News organizations had hoped the case could be used to mount a First Amendment attack against punitive damages in libel cases, Kaufman said. "That opportunity has passed for the time being," he said.

"We're disappointed," said Doug Jacobs, associate general counsel for CBS Inc. "We believed these issues were important enough for review."

The case stems from a suit by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. of Louisville, Ky., which makes Viceroy cigarettes. It accused CBS and WBBM-TV anchorman Walter Jacobson in Chicago of libeling it in a Nov. 11, 1981, broadcast.

Jacobson, in a nightly feature called "Walter Jacobson's Perspective," said there was a Viceroy advertising strategy to attract young people to smoking by relating cigarettes "to pot, wine, beer and sex." He said the idea was to present cigarette smoking as "an initiation into the adult world . . . as an illicit pleasure."

A federal jury awarded the cigarette company $5 million. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld $3 million of the award against CBS and $50,000 against Jacobson.

The $3 million award plus some $400,000 in interest is about four times the largest previous damage judgment against a news organization upheld on appeal. Awards upheld on appeal average between $100,000 and $150,000.

In other action, the court:

Left intact rulings in a case from St. Louis that public airports may not ban all demonstrations, soliciting and distribution of political and religious literature at their terminals.

Agreed to review rulings that limited Korean Air Lines' financial liability for a 1983 disaster in which 269 people died the shooting down of a KAL passenger jet over Soviet airspace.

Reinforced the right of hospitals to challenge federal regulations limiting the amount of money they are reimbursed for treating Medicare patients. The unanimous court was led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing his first opinion since joining the court Feb. 18.

Rejected a challenge to New York City's rent-control law that limits yearly increases for affected apartments to 7.5 percent.

Agreed to decide whether New York's powerful Board of Estimate the city's mayor, city council president and comptroller and the president of each of the city's five boroughs must be reapportioned to meet equal-voting standards.