UC Law SF Communications and Entertainment Journal


The award of punitive damages in libel cases has been a topic of constitutional debate ever since the United States Supreme Court imposed first amendment restrictions on state libel laws in 1964. More recently, the constitutionality of punitive damages has been challenged in non-libel cases under the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Last year, in Browning-Ferris Industries of Vermont v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., the Supreme Court held that punitive damages are not prohibited by the eighth amendment but expressly reserved the fourteenth amendment issue for later consideration. This Article examines Browning- Ferris in light of the Court's prior treatment of punitive damages in its libel decisions and outlines specific first and fourteenth amendment arguments against the award.of punitive damages in libel cases involving matters of public interest. The Article concludes that such awards are unconstitutional under both the first and fourteenth amendments and are against sound public policy.