NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · MASSACHUSETTS · Libel · May 10, 2007
$2 million libel verdict against Boston Herald upheld
May 10, 2007 · The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court this week unanimously upheld a $2 million libel verdict against the Boston Herald and reporter David Wedge.
Judge Ernest B. Murphy first sued Wedge and the Herald‘s parent company in 2002 in the wake of a story that quoted Murphy as saying in reference to a rape victim, “‘She’s 14. She got raped. Tell her to get over it.'” Wedge’s story attributed the quote, allegedly uttered “behind closed doors,” to unnamed “courthouse sources.”
The paper also ran an article by Wedge that called Murphy a “criminal-coddling judge who has let four accused rapists walk out of court in the past week.”
Murphy has maintained that Wedge’s stories are false and defamatory.
In the 5-0 opinion, Justice John M. Greaney wrote that the “publications devastated the plaintiff. Once a proud, gregarious man, he became diminished, scared, and sad.”
The jury in the lower court found that Wedge and the Herald published the stories with “actual malice,” knowledge of falsity or a reasonable belief that what they were printing was not true. Murphy had to meet this burden because as a judge, he is a public figure.
Media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Wedge and the Herald.
In a strange twist in the case, Murphy sent a letter written on court letterhead just days after the jury’s verdict to Herald publisher Patrick Purcell that demanded Purcell meet with Murphy without attorneys present and deliver a check for $3.26 million — the amount Murphy felt he was owed in addition to the jury’s $2.1 million verdict, which was later reduced to $2 million.
“Under NO circumstances should you involve [Herald attorneys] in this meeting,” Murphy wrote in the letter. “You will bring to that meeting a cashier’s check . . . No check, no meeting. You will give me that check and I will put it in my pocket.”
Additional letters sent to Purcell said that telling anybody about the correspondence would be “a BIG mistake” and that there was “ZERO chance of reversing my jury verdict. You are lucky that the jury came back at 2 million. I was betting on 5. I will NEVER, that as in NEVER, shave a dime from what you owe me.”
In affirming the jury’s verdict, the Supreme Judicial Court said that the defamatory “statements in the Herald are not the type of ‘erroneous’ statements recognized by the Supreme Court to be ‘inevitable in free debate, and that … must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need … to survive.'”
The opinion also addressed Wedge’s contention that he wrote his articles in good faith.
The court said that “[p]erhaps most damaging to [Wedge’s] protestations of good faith are the circumstances in which Wedge discarded the notebook in which he claims to have written the information as it was told to him” by the unnamed sources.
The court continued, “Although he testified that he usually discarded notes for articles. . .after publication, it is highly improbable that he would do so, as a routine matter, in this instance.”
In a statement, Purcell said he was “deeply troubled” by the decision of the state’s highest court.
“We are disappointed with the Supreme Judicial Court’s relentlessly one-sided view of Dave Wedge’s reporting on a public controversy within the judicial system, and are unwavering in our complete confidence in Wedge’s journalistic skills,” Purcell’s statement said.
Purcell said the newspaper would “continue to bring readers thorough and relevant enterprise stories and public criticism of judges.”
(Murphy v. Boston Herald Inc., Media Counsel: Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown, Baker Hostetler, Washington, D.C.) — ES