Libel battle won, but war remains lost

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d_kennedyBy Dan Kennedy

A battle has been won over a bizarre and dangerous decision by a federal appeals court earlier this year that truth may not be a defense in libel cases brought by private parties. Unfortunately, the war remains lost.

According to lawyer Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, a jury found recently that the office-supply chain Staples did not act with malice when a manager sent an e-mail to some 1,500 employees informing them he had fired a sales manager named Alan Noonan for violating the company’s travel and expense policies. (Ambrogi points to an article in the National Law Journal, but it’s subscription-only.)

As I reported earlier this year in the Guardian, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, ruled that Noonan’s libel suit against Staples could proceed even though the contents of the e-mail were true. The court relied on an old provision of Massachusetts libel law pertaining to “actual malice,” which Judge Juan Torruella wrote should be defined as “ill will” or “malevolent intent.” Torruella earned a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award for his anti-First Amendment decision.

Although Staples may not spring immediately to mind when one thinks about freedom of the press, the implications for the news media are obvious.

In the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of Times v. Sullivan, actual malice is defined as pertaining to a defamatory statement made with knowing falsity, or with “reckless disregard” for the truth. And though Times v. Sullivan applies solely to public officials, a series of subsequent decisions by the Court made it clear that a defamatory statement can never be found libelous if it is true — a principle asserted by free-speech advocates since the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger.

First Amendment lawyers such as Ambrogi and Robert Bertsche wrote that Torruella should have thrown out the Massachusetts law, on the books since 1902, as unconstitutional in light of Times v. Sullivan.

So far, though, Torruella’s toxic handiwork remains in effect — at least in Massachusetts.

Cross-posted from Media Nation.

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