The direct quotation is a narrative device treasured much by writers and readers alike. But the quoted passages that appear in print are not always carbon copies of the words actually spoken. Writers and reporters—for a number of reasons, some better than others—have been known to misquote those who feed them their steady diet of news. When writers attribute to newsmakers damning words they did not utter, the cry of libel can sound. During the 1991 term, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of errant quotations in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc. The plaintiff in Masson did not contend that The New Yorker had negligently misquoted him. Negligently misquoting a public figure is a pardonable offense under the "actual malice" standard articulated in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The allegedly libeled plaintiff in Masson maintained that the woman who penned his profile deliberately misquoted him in a number of defamatory passages. The Court held that deliberately misquoting a public figure is not actionable unless the alterations materially change the meaning of the actual statement. This Note divides Masson into the three opinions it spawned—that of the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court majority, and the Supreme Court dissent. The three opinions differ sharply on the issue of how far wayward a writer may wander when surrounding with quotation marks the words of another. The Ninth Circuit extended broad immunity to writers, mandating very little in the way of accuracy. The Court's majority offered significant protection, demanding only that quotes not be terribly errant. The dissent would have offered no protection, requiring writers to either paraphrase or reproduce with painstaking precision their sources' spoken words. The merits, minuses, and prospective effects of the three opinions are the focus of this Note.
Steven M. Thomas,
Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 111 S. Ct. 2419 (1991): Journalists Score Hollow Victory in Close Encounter of the Word Kind—and You Can [Mis]quote Me on That,
71 Neb. L. Rev.
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