Post, Undaunted

First Amendment: Judy Garland’s Defamation Suit Put Reporter Marie Torre Behind Bars

December 27, 2022

“Judy Throws a Monkey Wrench.” That was the headline in the New York Herald Tribune on January 10, 1957 over a column by Marie Torre, the newspaper’s entertainment reporter, about a contract dispute at CBS with Judy Garland.


“It’s a mess,” Torre quoted an unnamed CBS executive as saying, adding that a half-dozen meetings and a half-dozen ideas had not yielded a plan for a special that the star was under contract to appear in. Garland’s husband and manager maintained that CBS didn’t know what it wanted. The executive went on to say that something was bothering Garland and speculated gratuitously about the reason.


Garland sued CBS and the Herald-Tribune for defamation in a $1,393,000 action and sued Torre directly [Garland v. Torre, 259 F., 2d., 545] for refusing in court to reveal her source at the network. The case was lost on appeal and Torre served 10 days in New Jersey’s Hudson County Jail.


The case may have been trivial but in the Herald-Tribune‘s view, the issues of press freedom it raised were gigantic, “not because any newspaper should be above the law or defy the law . . . but because the basic freedom of the press is the ultimate guaranty of all individual liberties, including those of Miss Garland to redressal of her injuries, if any.”


The press was not of one mind about this. An editorial in Virginia’s Richmond News Leader, for example, supported the decision of the Second Appeals Court not to back the Herald Tribune’s arguments. In the editorialist’s view, neither of the defense’s two main contentions—that compelling Torre to disclose her source encroached on press freedom and that insuring the public’s interest in the free flow of news should compel the court to act on Torre’s behalf—amounted to “a row of beans in the case at bar.” It went on:


Some vapid bit of ‘news’ about a temperamental singer’s feud with a radio network is not the sort of news to which ‘freedom of the press’ and ‘the public interest’ can be pleaded very convincingly. In a case of this sort, newspaper reporters have no possible right to regard themselves as above the law. The public surely has an interest in the great principle of freedom of the press, but the public has an interest also in the orderly administration of justice. Miss Torre in this case was a key witness, and she was no more immune from judicial process than any other citizen.


Torre saw things differently and once released, turned her incarceration into copy, a ten-part series for the paper, in fact, published in January and February of 1959. Anxious as she was to get home, she wrote,


I felt then, and feel now more strongly than ever, that I had done the right thing in going to jail, rather than identify the source of a news item I had written about Judy Garland. To have done so would have violated a principle I believe in strongly—that every reporter has the right to protect his sources of information.


[Undaunted relegates this story to a sentence in the text. An endnote includes all the relevant citations from the case and Torre’s jailhouse series in the Herald-Tribune.]