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Advertiser did not defame by relying on news story

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         VIRGINIA         Libel         April 25, 2005    

Advertiser did not defame by relying on news story

  • Reliance on a newspaper article does not constitute “reckless disregard” for the truth, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled today, dismissing defamation claims against a newspaper advertiser.

April 25, 2005 — A former mayor cannot recover damages for defamation against an advertiser who published false facts about him, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled today. The advertiser’s sincere reliance on facts from a published newspaper article sufficiently showed that he did not know the advertisement was false or have serious doubts as to its truth, the court ruled.

Claude E. Jordan Sr., a Colonial Heights, Va., resident, wrote and paid for two advertisements in the The (Petersburg) Progress-Index urging voters to vote against then-Colonial Heights Mayor J. Chris Kollman III. Jordan’s ads, accusing Kollman of approving a large low-income housing project in the city, were published May 5, 2002, two days before the City Council election.

Kollman and others on the council had actually fought against the housing project, but the council was ultimately unsuccessful in blocking the project. Negotiations between the council and the developer were complex, and occurred partly in secret. A somewhat simplified version of events was reported in March by The Progress-Index detailing the council’s unsuccessful attempt to buy the property from the developer and reporting about progress on another nearby development.

Kollman, who won re-election to the City Council, sued Jordan for defamation in June.

A jury found in favor of Kollman and awarded him $200,000 in damages. The trial judge reduced the award to $50,000. Both Jordan and Kollman appealed.

The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed today in favor of Jordan. Justice G. Steven Agee, writing for the unanimous court, wrote that because Kollman was a public official he must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that Jordan acted with actual malice — meaning that he “realized that his statement was false or that he subjectively entertained serious doubt as to the truth of his statement.”

The court held that there were no obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of The Progress-Index article Jordan relied on.

“We cannot find that there was clear and convincing evidence which would permit the jury to find Jordan acted with actual malice merely because he failed to comprehend the intricacies of City Council voting procedure,” Agee wrote. “Jordan’s assertion that his ads were substantially true is more than a subjective belief — it is an honest conviction grounded in good faith.”

(Jordan v. Kollman)GP

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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