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Appeals court affirms summary judgment for newspaper

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Jan. 10, 2008  ·   A Georgia state court of appeals affirmed a summary judgment finding in favor of the…

Jan. 10, 2008  ·   A Georgia state court of appeals affirmed a summary judgment finding in favor of the Savannah Morning News on a libel claim lodged by a former public official.

William Torrance, a former city manager in Vidalia, Ga., first sued the paper after it ran a series of articles examining the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the death of a peeping Tom who victimized Torrance’s daughter.

Torrance specifically complained that the articles reported that he had been “let go” as the city manager of Vidalia, that there were allegations that he had abused drugs, that he had illegally wiretapped a conversation with a state investigator and that he nailed his daughter’s window shut after it had been used as a means of entrance by her boyfriends.

As a public official, Torrance faced the rigid demands of the actual malice standard, a hurdle the court of appeals concluded that Torrance could not overcome. In arguing that a jury should at least hear the case, Torrance offered evidence that he believed contradicted the facts presented in the series and indicated that the paper’s reporters treated him with ill will.

But in depositions, the reporters detailed the sources of each of the allegedly defamatory statements, including copies of police reports, crime scene logs, and notes; pleadings and depositions in the related federal action brought by the investigator whose telephone calls Torrance wiretapped; and personal interviews with members of the Eastman City Council, police and state investigators and Torrance himself.

Judge J.D. Smith, writing for the court, held that it was not enough for Torrance simply to make statements that contradicted the sources cited by the newspaper reporters, noting that “the press need not accept denials, however vehement” because “such denials are so commonplace” that they would “hardly alert the conscientious reporter to the likelihood of error.” Torrance’s claims were on especially shaky ground because the reporters included his denials in the articles, indicating that he received fair treatment in the paper.

David E. Hudson, who represented the Morning News on appeal, said the reporters in case could not have done anything better in preparing the series, which won an award for investigative journalism from the Georgia Press Association.

“It was excellent journalism, they just stepped on some toes,” Hudson said, adding that the case proved that journalists can continue to rely on the standard established in New York Times v. Sullivan and that he hoped the cost of such litigation would dissuade public officials from filing similar suits in the future.

Smith also reinforced the notion that hatred, spite, ill will or even the desire to injure can never be enough to support a finding of actual malice. Instead, he wrote, the analysis must turn on a reporter’s actual knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. Torrance’s testimony “that one of the reporters was ‘hostile and agitated’ while interviewing him and told him that he ought to be in prison” was therefore irrelevant.

Barring an appeal from Torrance, the court’s decision should end a years-long battle between the Morning News and the Torrance family. Last year, the court of appeals granted summary judgment for the paper in a companion libel suit filed by Torrance’s daughter.

(Torrance v. Morris Pub. Group, LLC; Media Counsel: David E. Hudson, Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley, Augusta,Ga.)Matthew Pollack

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