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Mitchell v. Globe International Publishing, Inc. 978 F. 2nd 1065 was a legal case involving First Amendment freedom of the press, as well as privacy issues. It originated in a lawsuit filed by ninety-six-year-old Nellie Mitchell, a native of Mountain Home (Baxter County). Mitchell sued Globe International, the publisher of the tabloid paper the Sun, for false light invasion of privacy after the paper published a photograph of her to illustrate one of its articles. When the jury returned a verdict in favor of Mitchell and awarded her a total of $1.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, Globe appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which upheld the verdict. A final effort to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was unsuccessful when the High Court refused to hear the case.
The catalyst for the case was an article in the October 2, 1990, edition of the supermarket tabloid theSun. A story headlined “Pregnancy Forces Granny to Quit Work at Age 101” was accompanied by a photograph of Nellie Mitchell, the same photograph that had accompanied a factual article theSun’s sister publication, the National Examiner, had run on November 25, 1980. That article was a generally accurate accounting of the then-eighty-five-year-old Mitchell’s long-time work delivering newspapers in her community. She had begun delivering papers during the Great Depression after her husband abandoned her and their six children. She often walked around Mountain Home delivering the papers and also sold papers from a small shed across the street from the courthouse.
Like the human interest stories that appeared in a number of newspapers nationwide, as well as the television talk show interviews Mitchell gave, the Examiner’s original story celebrated Mitchell’s status as a town icon. However, the story that accompanied the picture of Mitchell in the Sun a decade later reported that a woman named Audrey Wiles, who lived in Australia, had been forced to quit her paper route because an affair with a multi-millionaire on the route had left her pregnant. After word got out about the article, the paper sold out in Mitchell’s home region of northern Arkansas, and she filed suit in Arkansas state court for libel.
The case was quickly moved to the federal district court, which allowed the People’s Bank and Trust Company of Mountain Home as conservators of her estate to file an amended complaint against Globe Publishing Company for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and outrage (the intentional infliction of emotional harm). Mitchell was represented by Phillip McMath, son of former governor Sid McMath, and the case was tried before a jury on December 2–4, 1991. At trial, Sun personnel claimed that its stories were “pure fiction” and that no one could reasonably believe them. As to the use of Mitchell’s picture, a Sun editor testified that while they usually used pictures of non–United States residents so as to avoid defamation problems, in this case they had chosen the picture of Mitchell from their files because they assumed she was dead. An eight-person jury found for Globe Publishing on the defamation claim but unanimously supported Mitchell’s claim for invasion of privacy and outrage, awarding her $650,000 in compensatory damages and $850,000 in punitive damages.
Globe Publishing filed a post-trial motion asking the court to vacate the verdict as a matter of law and with an alternative pleading calling for a new trial, if the verdict was not overturned as matter of law. The court denied the motion, and the company appealed, again maintaining that Mitchell could not, as a matter of law, win. Globe Publishing further argued that the evidence did not support the claims on which the jury had found for Mitchell.
Given the First Amendment issues that were raised by the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit made an independent review of the whole record. The court declared that even if one accepted that the article was, in fact, fiction—and the Court noted that the form and style of the paper offered every indication that it was a factual newspaper—Mitchell’s accompanying photograph, coupled with elements of the article that matched her life, could lead to the reasonable conclusion that it was true, thus casting Mitchell in a highly unfavorable light. In a ruling issued on November 4, 1992, the Court of Appeals sided with Mitchell, upholding the jury verdict and concluding that “the evidence is sufficient to support a jury verdict awarding damages for false light invasion of privacy, and that the judgment does not constitute a forbidden intrusion on the field of free expression.”
Globe Publishing sought a rehearing by the Court of Appeals, but in December 1992 that request, too, was denied. The company’s subsequent effort to get a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court was also unsuccessful, leaving the verdict intact, with the case serving to establish new safeguards on individual privacy, while forcing the news media to add an additional level of responsibility to the exercise of its First Amendment rights. In the aftermath of its loss, the Sun began to include a disclaimer concerning the accuracy of its articles.
Mitchell continued to live in Mountain Home after collecting her judgment, and she died in 1998.
For additional information:McMath, Sidney S. Promises Kept: A Memoir. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
Mitchell v. Globe Intern. Pub., Inc. 773 F. Supp. 1235 (1991).
People’s Bank and Trust Company of Mountain Hope, Conservator of the Estate of Nellie Mitchell, Aged Person v. Globe International Publishing, Inc. 978 F. 2nd 1065 (1992). http://www.leagle.com/decision/19922043978F2d1065_11866 (accessed October 24, 2013).
William H. Pruden IIIRavenscroft School
Last Updated 6/10/2016
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