U.S. Supreme Court


443 U.S. 111 (1979)

Decided June 26, 1979.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari  to resolve three issues: (1) Whether a Member of Congress is protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, Art. I, 6, against suits for allegedly defamatory statements made by the Member in press releases and newsletters; (2) whether petitioner Hutchinson is either a "public figure" or a "public official," thereby making applicable the "actual malice" standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan; and (3) whether respondents were entitled to summary judgment.

Ronald Hutchinson, a research behavioral scientist, sued respondents, William Proxmire, a United States Senator, and his legislative assistant, Morton Schwartz, for defamation arising out of Proxmire's giving what he called his "Golden Fleece" award. The "award" went to federal agencies that had sponsored Hutchinson's research. Hutchinson alleged that in making the award and publicizing it nationwide, respondents had libeled him, damaging him in his professional and academic standing, and had interfered with his contractual relations.


Respondent Proxmire is a United States Senator from Wisconsin. In March 1975, he initiated the "Golden Fleece of the Month Award" to publicize what he perceived to be the most egregious examples of wasteful governmental spending. The second such award, in April 1975, went to the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Office of Naval Research, for spending almost half a million dollars during the preceding seven years to fund Hutchinson's research.

At the time of the award, Hutchinson was director of research at the Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital.... The bulk of Hutchinson's research was devoted to the study of emotional behavior. In particular, he sought an objective measure of aggression, concentrating upon the behavior patterns of certain animals, such as the clenching of jaws when they were exposed to various aggravating stressful stimuli. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency and the Navy were interested in the potential of this research for resolving problems associated with confining humans in close quarters for extended periods of time in space and undersea exploration.

The Golden Fleece Award to the agencies that had sponsored Hutchinson's research was based upon research done for Proxmire by Schwartz. While seeking evidence of wasteful governmental spending, Schwartz read copies of reports that Hutchinson had prepared under grants from NASA. Those reports revealed that Hutchinson had received grants from the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Michigan State Department of Mental Health. Schwartz also learned that other federal agencies had funded Hutchinson's research. After contacting a number of federal and state agencies, Schwartz helped to prepare a speech for Proxmire to present in the Senate on April 18, 1975; the text was then incorporated into an advance press release, with only the addition of introductory and concluding sentences. Copies were sent to a mailing list of 275 members of the news media throughout the United States and abroad.

Schwartz telephoned Hutchinson before releasing the speech to tell him of the award; Hutchinson protested that the release contained an inaccurate and incomplete summary of his research. Schwartz replied that he thought the summary was fair.

In the speech, Proxmire described the federal grants for Hutchinson's research, concluding with the following comment:

"The funding of this nonsense makes me almost angry enough to scream and kick or even clench my jaw. It seems to me it is outrageous. Dr. Hutchinson's studies should make the taxpayers as well as his monkeys grind their teeth. In fact, the good doctor has made a fortune from his monkeys and in the process made a monkey out of the American taxpayer. It is time for the Federal Government to get out of this `monkey business.' In view of the transparent worthlessness of Hutchinson's study of jaw-grinding and biting by angry or hard-drinking monkeys, it is time we put a stop to the bite Hutchinson and the bureaucrats who fund him have been taking of the taxpayer."
In May 1975, Proxmire referred to his Golden Fleece Awards in a newsletter sent to about 100,000 people whose names were on a mailing list that included constituents in Wisconsin as well as persons in other states. The newsletter repeated the essence of the speech and the press release. Later in 1975, Proxmire appeared on a television interview program where he referred to Hutchinson's research, though he did not mention Hutchinson by name.

The final reference to the research came in a newsletter in February 1976. In that letter, Proxmire summarized his Golden Fleece Awards of 1975. The letter did not mention Hutchinson's name, but it did report: " - The NSF, the Space Agency, and the Office of Naval Research won the `Golden Fleece' for spending jointly $500,000 to determine why monkeys clench their jaws.. . . .All the studies on why monkeys clench their jaws were dropped. No more monkey business."

After the award was announced, Schwartz, acting on behalf of Proxmire, contacted a number of the federal agencies that had sponsored the research. In his deposition he stated that he did not attempt to dissuade them from continuing to fund the research but merely discussed the subject. Hutchinson, by contrast, contends that these calls were intended to persuade the agencies to terminate his grants and contracts.


On April 16, 1976, Hutchinson filed this suit in United States District Court in Wisconsin. In Count I he alleges that as a result of the actions of Proxmire and Schwartz he has "suffered a loss of respect in his profession, has suffered injury to his feelings, has been humiliated, held up to public scorn, suffered extreme mental anguish and physical illness and pain to his person. Further, he has suffered a loss of income and ability to earn income in the future." Count II alleges that the respondents' conduct has interfered with Hutchinson's contractual relationships with supporters of his research. He later amended the complaint to add an allegation that his rights of privacy and peace and tranquility have been infringed.

Respondents moved for a change of venue and for summary judgment. In their motion for summary judgment they asserted that all of their acts and utterances were protected by the Speech or Debate Clause....


The purpose of the Speech or Debate Clause is to protect Members of Congress "not only from the consequences of litigation's results but also from the burden of defending themselves."  If the respondents have immunity under the Clause, no other questions need be considered for they may "not be questioned in any other Place...."


In support of the Court of Appeals holding that newsletters and press releases are protected by the Speech or Debate Clause, respondents rely upon both historical precedent and present-day congressional practices. They contend that impetus for the Speech or Debate Clause privilege in our Constitution came from the history of parliamentary efforts to protect the right of members to criticize the spending of the Crown and from the prosecution of a Speaker of the House of Commons for publication of a report outside of Parliament. Respondents also contend that in the modern day very little speech or debate occurs on the floor of either House; from this they argue that press releases and newsletters are necessary for Members of Congress to communicate with other Members. For example, in his deposition Proxmire testified:  "I have found in 19 years in the Senate that very often a statement on the floor of the Senate or something that appears in the Congressional Record misses the attention of most members of the Senate, and virtually all members of the House, because they don't read the Congressional Record. If they are handed a news release, or something, that is going to call it to their attention . . . ."

Respondents also argue that an essential part of the duties of a Member of Congress is to inform constituents, as well as other Members, of the issues being considered.

The Speech or Debate Clause has been directly passed on by this Court relatively few times in 190 years. Literal reading of the Clause would, of course, confine its protection narrowly to a "Speech or Debate in either House." But the Court has given the Clause a practical rather than a strictly literal reading which would limit the protection to utterances made within the four walls of either Chamber. Thus, we have held that committee hearings are protected, even if held outside the Chambers; committee reports are also protected.

The gloss going beyond a strictly literal reading of the Clause has not, however, departed from the objective of protecting only legislative activities. In Thomas Jefferson's view: "[The privilege] is restrained to things done in the House in a Parliamentary course . . . . For [the Member] is not to have privilege contra morem parliamentarium, to exceed the bounds and limits of his place and duty."

One of the draftsmen of the Constitution, James Wilson, expressed a similar thought in lectures delivered between 1790 and 1792 while he was a Justice of this Court. He rejected Blackstone's statement that Parliament's privileges were preserved by keeping them indefinite: "Very different is the case with regard to the legislature of the United States . . . . The great maxims, upon which our law of parliament is founded, are defined and ascertained in our constitutions. The arcana of privilege, and the arcana of prerogative, are equally unknown to our system of jurisprudence."

In this respect, Wilson was underscoring the very purpose of our Constitution - inter alia, to provide written definitions of the powers, privileges, and immunities granted rather than rely on evolving constitutional concepts identified from diverse sources as in English law. Like thoughts were expressed by Joseph Story, writing in the first edition of his Commentaries on the Constitution in 1833: "But this privilege is strictly confined to things done in the course of parliamentary proceedings, and does not cover things done beyond the place and limits of duty...."

Nearly a century ago, in Kilbourn v. Thompson, this Court held that the Clause extended "to things generally done in a session of the House by one of its members in relation to the business before it." More recently we expressed a similar definition of the scope of the Clause:

Whatever imprecision there may be in the term "legislative activities," it is clear that nothing in history or in the explicit language of the Clause suggests any intention to create an absolute privilege from liability or suit for defamatory statements made outside the Chamber. "The immunities of the Speech or Debate Clause were not written into the Constitution simply for the personal or private benefit of Members of Congress, but to protect the integrity of the legislative process by insuring the independence of individual legislators...."

Indeed, the precedents abundantly support the conclusion that a Member may be held liable for republishing defamatory statements originally made in either House. We perceive no basis for departing from that long-established rule.....

In Gravel v. United States, we recognized that the doctrine denying immunity for republication had been accepted in the United States: "[P]rivate publication by Senator Gravel . . . was in no way essential to the deliberations of the Senate; nor does questioning as to private publication threaten the integrity or independence of the Senate by impermissibly exposing its deliberations to executive influence...."

We reach a similar conclusion here. A speech by Proxmire in the Senate would be wholly immune and would be available to other Members of Congress and the public in the Congressional Record. But neither the newsletters nor the press release was "essential to the deliberations of the Senate" and neither was part of the deliberative process....

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, dissenting.

I disagree with the Court's conclusion that Senator Proxmire's newsletters and press releases fall outside the protection of the speech-or-debate immunity. In my view, public criticism by legislators of unnecessary governmental expenditures, whatever its form, is a legislative act shielded by the Speech or Debate Clause....

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