Virginia Supreme Court rules for newspaper in libel case

Michael Rooney | Libel | News | January 14, 2014

The Virginia Supreme Court has upheld a decision throwing out a libel verdict against The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.

The justices unanimously ruled that the paper did not libel Phillip Webb after it reported that Webb’s son was not disciplined by the school system stemming from a physical altercation. Webb was an assistant principal at a different high school in the same school system.

At trial, Webb asserted that the 2009 story suggested that the son received special treatment due to Webb's role as an assistant principal in that school system. For this, a jury awarded Webb $3 million in damages.

The trial judge, however, found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the newspaper had acted with "actual malice" -- knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth -- which was required because Webb was a public figure.

In its ruling, the Virginia Supreme Court said the article did not suggest that Webb had any undue influence over the treatment of his son at the school. Therefore, the court said that the suit should have originally been dismissed before going to the jury.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· SLAPP Stick: Fighting frivolous lawsuits against journalists