Appeals court reverses its own ruling on libel suit filed over book review
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Explaining that “one ought not to reject [wisdom] merely because it comes late,” in early May a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington (D.C. Cir.) reversed its own February decision and affirmed the dismissal of a libel suit filed by the author of a book unfavorably reviewed in the New York Times.
In its review of Dan Moldea’s 1989 book Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football, the Times charged Moldea with “sloppy journalism” and cited several examples in support of that proposition.
The appeals court initially ruled 2-1, with Judges Harry Edwards and Patricia Wald in the majority, that Moldea could proceed with his suit because two of the reviewer’s charges of sloppiness were verifiable and subject to enough dispute that a reasonable juror could deem them false.
In its surprising about-face, the panel unanimously adopted a different legal standard for libel cases involving book reviews. The new test renders commentary actionable only if “no reasonable person could find that the review’s characterizations were supportable interpretations.”
The appeals court concluded that the review’s examples were supportable interpretations of the book. Although the panel remained “troubled” by one example in the review, it held that the “sloppy journalism” charge was substantially true as a matter of law, because other examples in the review were true, supported opinions or supportable interpretations.
(Moldea v. New York Times Co.; Media Counsel: Bruce Sanford, Washington)