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National Police Association v. Gannett and Associated Press

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

Date Filed: Sept. 27, 2022

Update: On Aug. 31, 2023, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion affirming the district court’s order granting the motion to dismiss filed by Gannett and the Associated Press. In its opinion, the appeals court flatly rejected the National Police Association’s novel argument that online publishers have a continuing duty to remove previously published libelous information.

Background: In 2019 the Gannett-owned Indianapolis Star and the Associated Press reported on “scam alerts” issued by at least four police departments in four states concerning solicitation letters sent by the National Police Association to residents of their communities. The letters sought to raise money for local police departments. After the articles were published, some of the police departments updated their statements about the solicitations.

The NPA sued Gannett and the Associated Press for defamation after each news outlet declined to retract or take down its earlier reporting. In the lawsuit, the NPA did not allege that the articles were published with “actual malice” at the time of publication. It also appeared to concede that the articles may be subject to the fair-report privilege and that some of the NPA’s claims fell outside of the statute of limitations.

Instead, the NPA asked the court to adopt a new, novel standard that would nullify the single-publication rule and the fair-report privilege — longstanding rules that, together, ensure that a journalist who accurately reports the statements of a public official (or public body) will not be liable for defamation merely because the same public official (or public body) later modifies or recants those statements.

Under the NPA’s proposed “continued-publication” rule, statements that were true or privileged when they were published can later become defamatory based on post-publication events. The NPA’s proposed rule also contends that the statute of limitations for defamation does not begin to run until the publisher learns that the statements are no longer accurate.

Gannett and the Associated Press filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. The district court granted the motion. The NPA appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Our Position: The Seventh Circuit should reject the NPA’s proposed continued-publication rule and affirm the district court’s dismissal of the association’s claims.

  • The NPA’s proposed continued-publication rule would undercut the protections afforded by both the single-publication rule and the fair-report privilege.
  • The continued-publication rule proposed by the NPA would have a profound chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.

Quote: If the NPA’s proposed rule became law, “Any news article published since the dawn of the internet could become a source of potential tort litigation — even articles, like those at issue here, that undisputedly contained no actionable statements at the time of publication. And any assertion of inaccuracy made by the subject of such negative reporting, even decades later, could trigger a resource-draining investigation into the veracity of the subject’s claims.”

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