The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether a scientist whose research was derided by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) in a "Golden Fleece Award" and an Arlington man accused by an author of being a "Soviet agent" are "public figures" for purposes of suing their accusers for slander or libel.
The court will review rulings that experimental psychologist Ronald R. Hutchinson of Kalamazoo, Mich., and Ilya Wolston are in the same legal status as public officials.
Winning damages is vastly more difficult for a public figure than for a private citizen. The public figure must carry the heavy legal burden imposed by a 1964 Supreme Court ruling: showing not merely that he was harmed, but that his accusers had acted with "actual malice."
Hutchinson sued Prxmire for $8 million after the senator awarded the fleece to federal agencies that had given the psychologist $500,000 for research into human and animal aggression -- charcterized in a Senate speech, press releases and television and radio interviews as a study of why "rats, monkeys and humans bite and clench their jaws."
Ruling for Prxmire and aide Morton Schwartz last July, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Hutchinson's claim that he wasn't a public figure simply because he got public funds, wrote occasional articles for arcane journals, was named now and then in a local newspaper, and wrote a reply to Proxmire that several papers printed.
Wolston was called a Soviet agent -- "falsely," he says -- in John Barron's "KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents." Reader's Digest Association Inc. financed and published the book. Two book clubs and a paperback house also distributed it. Wolston accused all of them of libel.
Last May, the U.S. Court of Appeals here ruled that in failing to appear before a grand jury in 1958 and then pleading guilty to criminal contempt, he became a public figure, "whatever his subjective intention might have been."
The court took other actions:
In an 8-to-0 decision in June 1977, the court held that a desegregation plan fashioned by a federal judge must be designed to remedy "the incremental segregative effect" of constitutional violations that have been demonstrated to exist. And, the court said, "only if there has been a systemwide impact may there be a systemwide remedy."
For Columbus, Ohio -- where, as in most northern states, no law compelled dual school systems -- a judge fashioned a system-wide remedy that, among other things, would start busing for more than 37,000 of 96,000 students. Although the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the plan as conforming with the 1977 decision, the Supreme Court will review it.
Earlier, Justice William H. Rehnquist, who wrote the opinion for the court in the 1977 case, stayed the 6th Circuit ruling, preventing the plan from taking effect last September.
Last April, the court ruled 5 to 4 that the First Amendment invalidated a Massachusetts law forbidding a business to spend corporate funds to influence voters on any referendum issue not closely related to the company's welfare.
Later, the state's highest tribunal held unanimously that another state law barred a municipal corporation -- the city of Boston -- from spending $975,000 of public funds to seek votes for a proposition on last November's ballot. The proposal was to let the legislature, for tax purposes, value residential real property at a lower rate than commercial real property.
Citing the April decision, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. on Oct. 20 stayed the state tribunal's ruling. The full court upheld him 6 to 3 on election eve. In the dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the majority improperly had reversed a state court on a matter of state law. He termed it "frivolous" to suggest that the First Amendment empowered the high court to interfere as it had, or to compel a state to give a city power to spend money that the state had withheld.
Apparently his view prevailed, because yesterday the court voted 6 to 3 to reject Boston's petition for review of the state court's ruling. Justices Brennan, Harry A. Blackmun and Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., author of the April ruling, were the dissenters.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Under a 1973 New York law sought by then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, mandatory maximum life sentences were given to Martha Carmona for possessing one ounce of a substance containing cocaine and to Roberta Fower for a $20 sale of 0.00455 of an ouce of a similar substance. Carmona's minimum sentence was six years and Fowler's four years.
Carmona, who had no criminal record but for a non-drug arrest 19 years earlier, and Fowler, then 20, who previously had been convicted of possession and use of drug paraphernalia, prostitution and petty larceny, appealed on the ground that the sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution.
The high court denied their petition for review. In a dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Powell, said that few principles are more firmly rooted in American jurisprudence that that of "proportionality between a crime and its punishment." In New York, they noted, the sentence for first-degree rape, manslaughter or robbery, and for second-degree kidnaping or arson, is 6 to 25 years.