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Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association Inc.

443 U.S. 157 (1979)

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Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Association Inc.

United States Supreme Court

443 U.S. 157 (1979)

Facts

In 1957 relatives of Ilya Wolston (plaintiff) were arrested on charges of spying for the Soviet Union as part of an extensive federal grand jury inquiry. Wolston was interviewed several times by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and appeared before the grand jury in New York pursuant to several subpoenas. In July 1958, Wolston suffered from mental-health issues and failed to appear in response to one subpoena. Wolston appeared at a hearing to defend himself against a contempt of court charge but ultimately pleaded guilty to contempt. In the six weeks between Wolston’s failure to appear and his sentencing, 15 stories were published in New York and Washington, D.C., newspapers about Wolston. Wolston never spoke with the media. Wolston led a private life before the investigation, and after his sentencing he returned to living in privacy. Wolston was never indicted on any conspiracy charges. In 1974 Reader’s Digest Association Inc. (Reader’s Digest) (defendant) published KGB, the Secret Work of Soviet Agents (KGB), a book about Soviet activity after World War II. The book identified Wolston by name as a Soviet agent living in the United States and stated that Wolston had been indicted for espionage. Wolston sued on the ground that the statements in KGB were false and defamatory. Reader’s Digest filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district court granted, holding Wolston was a limited-purpose public figure because of the publicity surrounding his failure to appear and subsequent citation for contempt. The court found Wolston failed to prove Reader’s Digest published the defamatory statements with actual malice, which was required for public figures to recover for defamation. The court of appeals affirmed, and Wolston appealed. The United States Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Rehnquist, J.)

Concurrence (Blackmun, J.)

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