The Supreme Court yesterday chilled efforts by public officials to collect damages from publications that allegedly libel them maliciously.
The court rejected pleas by a judge, an assessor and a legislator to review decisions that they hadn't proved malice on the part of an author, a magazine writer, a reporter and all of their publishers.
The justice acted four weeks after they had left standing an Idaho ruling that public officials can force newspapers and reporters to reveal confidential news sources simply by suing them for libel.
A week later, in another action that troubled press spokesmen, they left standing a $100,000 punitive damages award won by a Florida official against a newspaper and two staff members.
All five cases involved the court's decision in 1964 in New York Times vs. Sullivan that a public official seeking damages for a defamatory falsehood must prove that the statement was made with "actual malice" - with knowledge that it was false, or with "reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."
In none of the five cases did the justices say why they declined to review decisions made by lower courts.
In yesterday's cases, one losing litigant was Dominic Rinaldi, a New York State Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn acquitted in August, 1974, of charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
The others were Thomas R. Fadell, assessor fro Calumet Township (Gary), Ind., who, among the other things, had assessed United States Steel Corp. plant improvements of $1.3 billion at only $25 million, and Delores Glover, a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Rinaldi had sought $5 million from Jack Newfield and Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., publisher of Newfield's 1974 book "Cruel and Unusual Punishment."
The book consisted manily of articles in the Village Voice, of which Newfield was an editor, that termed Rinaldi "suspiciously lenient" in sentencing heroin dealers and organized-crime figures. A footnote added to the book after Rinaldi was indicted, but before he was acquitted, described him as "probably corrupt."
A divided New York Court of Appeals upheld a summary judgment for Newfield and Holt, saying that Rinaldi had the burden of showing "that he is not 'probably corrupt' and that no sentences were unduly lenient . . . There are no evidentiary facts which would support [Rinaldi's] claim that Newfield's accusations are false. Further, there is no triable issue as to actual malice."
Chief Judge Charles Breitel, while voting with the majority, said it is "virtually impossible to bear the burden of proving that one is not 'corrupt' or 'probably corrupt.'
One issue raised in the Supreme Court involved a report by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York that was favorable to Rinaldi.
In an affidavit, Holt editor Marian Wood emphasized, that the report came out in April, 1974, after initial retail distribution of the book in the period "March" 16-18, 1974. The month of the book's distribution appeared as "May" in the retyped version fo the transcript included as an appendix to Rinaldi's brief.
Holt pointed out, however, that the "y" in "May" was out of kilter with the rest of the typed line, Rinaldi lawyer Irwin A. Wilson said there was "plainly an error in transcription."
In the assessor case, Fadell sued writer George Crile, Harper's Magazine, and other for a November, 1972, article entitled, "A Tax Assessor Has Many Friends . . ."
Federal Judge Allen Sharp threw out Fadell's complaint after examining a huge record - including 1,128 pages of Crile's notes and 418 pages of transcibed interviews - and concluding that all concerned with the article had shown great care. The record "reflects no malice whatsoever," Sharp said. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Crile wrote that Fadell "had used his office to solicit bribes, divert public monies for his political as well as personal use, destroy hundreds of volumes of public records and provide millions of dollars in tax reductions to certain corporations." Half the taxable property in Gary belongs to U.S. Steel.
In the St. Louis case, a Globe-Democrat rewriteman inadvertently attributed to city legislator Glove a statement - made by a colleague - that she had had two abortions. Despite a retraction by the paper, Glover continued to receive many abusive and obscene telephone calls.
The Missouri Supreme Court, reversing a $7,000 damage award, said the newsman was unaware of the error in his story and that Glover had failed to show actual malice.