Dun and Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc.
472 U.S. 749 (1985)

  • Dun was a credit reporting agency. They reported that Greenmoss had filed for bankruptcy (thereby ruining Greenmoss’ credit.)
    • This turned out to be untrue. Dun later sent out a retraction, but Greenmoss’ reputation had already been damaged.
  • Greenmoss sued for defamation of character.
  • The Trial Court found for Greenmoss and awarded compensatory and punitive damages. Dun appealed.
    • The jury was not given any instructions about what level of fault was required before awarding damages.
    • Dun argued that the 1st Amendment and the right of free speech meant that in order to be held libel for publishing false information, there must be a showing that they had actual malice.
      • New York Times v. Sullivan (376 U.S. 254 (1964)) found that a newspaper couldn’t be libel for damages unless the statements were made with actual malice (aka with knowledge that the statements are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.)
  • The Appellate Court awarded a new trial. Greenmoss appealed.
  • The Vermont Supreme Court reversed and canceled the new trial. Dun appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court affirmed.
    • The US Supreme Court found that, unlike Sullivan (a city official), Greenmoss was a private figure.
    • The Court found that 1st Amendment interests were less controlling in matters of a purely private concern than matters that are a public interest.
    • Because Dun’s 1st Amendment right to defame a private figure was less than their right to defame a public figure, there was no requirement of actual malice to sustain a defamation suit.
  • Basically, this case says that if you publish something about a public figure that turns out to be false, you can’t be sued for libel unless you were acting maliciously or knew it was untrue. However, if you publish something about a private figure that turns out to be false, you can be sued, even though you thought it was true at the time.