Actual malice required in cases of public interest
ALASKA–In mid-March the Alaska Supreme Court in Anchorage dismissed a libel action brought against the Juneau Empire by a tramway developer after finding that the developer was a public figure and did not demonstrate actual malice. The court also held that actual malice must be proven in cases involving matters of public interest, regardless of the plaintiff’s status.
The high court affirmed a trial court’s holding that the developer, Charles Keen, was a public figure. The court noted that Keen, as president of Alaska Trams, voluntarily sought public approval for the tramway project. The court also stated that the tramway project was a matter of public concern.
The Supreme Court stated that even if Keen were not a public figure, the actual malice standard would apply to one of the allegedly libelous articles, because it concerned a matter of public interest. The article alleged that hazardous material was stored in an area owned by Keen’s company for the tramway project.
In June 1991 Keen had sued the newspaper for libel in Superior Court in Ketchikan, alleging that the newspaper printed false articles with malicious intent to impede the tramway project. The trial court granted summary judgment to the newspaper, finding that Keen was a public figure and did not demonstrate that the newspaper acted with actual malice — knowledge that the article was false or a reckless disregard for the truth.
The court explained that although the articles contained some inaccuracies, the newspaper did not have any reason to doubt the truth of what was printed.
The court also approved the trial court’s award of more than $31,000 in attorney’s fees to the newspaper. (Mount Juneau Enterprises v. Juneau Empire; Media Counsel: L. Merrill Lowden, Juneau)