Bose Corporation v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc. – Case Brief
The defendant printed an unfavorable story about Boss systems, and Boss brought a libelous action against the defendant.
Case Summary Facts:
Consumers Union of United States, Inc. (Consumer Reports) (defendant) published an article that allegedly disparaged a sound system manufactured by Bose Corporation (Bose) (plaintiff). Bose brought a product disparagement suit against Consumer Reports. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts found that Bose was a “public figure” for disparagement purposes and held in favor of Bose, finding that Bose proved by clear and convincing evidence that Consumer Reports had made a false, disparaging statement about Bose with “actual malice.” The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts based its conclusion primarily on the testimony of the author of the article. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit performed a de novo review of the facts, rather than a review based on the clearly erroneous standard, and reversed, holding that Bose in fact had not proved by clear and convincing evidence that Consumer Reports published the statement in question with actual malice. Bose appealed.
Whether a Court of Appeals can use a de novo review of the factual findings of a District Court when the case concerns First Amendment issues.
Justice White believes the court should allow the de novo standard of review for first amendment cases. A court of appeals with only the record before them can not make a better determination as to finding of malice and mens rea than the judge that was present when the witness was actually examined.
No. The Court held that while the record revealed that the article's author mistakenly described the sound path of Bose speakers, he did not do so with actual malice. A review of the author's testimony showed that he heard the Bose speaker sounds as tending to wander "along the wall" between speakers, rather then "about the room." Despite this disparity, the Court held that the description of Bose speaker sounds as wondering "about the room," though a misconception, was not written with actual malice since its author was not aware of his mischaracterization in time to remedy the error. Therefore, his speech was entitled to First Amendment protection.
JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
An unusual metaphor in a critical review of an unusual loudspeaker system gave rise to product disparagement litigation that presents us with a procedural question of first impression: Does Rule 52(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure prescribe the standard to be applied by the Court of Appeals in its review of a District Court's determination that a false statement was made with the kind of "actual malice" described in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279 -280 (1964)?
In the May 1970 issue of its magazine, Consumer Reports, respondent published a seven-page article evaluating the quality of numerous brands of medium-priced loudspeakers. In a boxed-off section occupying most of two pages, respondent commented on "some loudspeakers of special interest," [466 U.S. 485, 488] one of which was the Bose 901 - an admittedly "unique and unconventional" system that had recently been placed on the market by petitioner. 1 After describing the system and some of its virtues, and after noting that a listener "could pinpoint the location of various instruments much more easily with a standard speaker than with the Bose system," respondent's article made the following statements:
"Worse, individual instruments heard through the Bose system seemed to grow to gigantic proportions and tended to wander about the room. For instance, a violin appeared to be 10 feet wide and a piano stretched from wall to wall. With orchestral music, such effects seemed inconsequential. But we think they might become annoying when listening to soloists." Plaintiff's Exhibit 2, p. 274.
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