NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · SOUTH CAROLINA · Libel · Aug. 24, 2005
Candidate to get jury trial in suit over Guard service
Aug. 24, 2005 · A lawsuit over an editorial calling a state House of Representatives candidate a liar must go before a jury, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled Monday. The court ruled that a trial court had wrongly ruled for The Augusta Chronicle before sending the libel case to a jury because plaintiff Tom Anderson had presented evidence sufficient for a jury to find that the paper acted with actual malice when it editorialized that Anderson lied about serving in the National Guard.
In April 1997 Chronicle reporter Chad Bray interviewed Anderson, who had lost a House of Representatives election in 1996 and was running again in a special election. According to Bray, Anderson said he had been unable to campaign in 1996 because he had been called away by the National Guard. According to Anderson, he told Bray he had been called to North Carolina by the National Flood Insurance Program after hurricanes Fran and Bertha.
The Chronicle ran stories on April 6 and June 3 stating that Anderson had been unable to campaign because he had been called away by the National Guard. Anderson found out about the stories in September when Chronicle reporter John Boyette called to ask him if he would be dropping out of the special election because it had been proven that he did not serve in the National Guard. Anderson denied telling Bray he served in the National Guard, and sent documentation of his insurance work to the newspaper.
On October 1, The Chronicle published an editorial by Phil Kent titled “Let the Liar Run” charging Anderson with lying about serving in the National Guard. The Chronicle published a partial response by Anderson the next day.
Anderson sued for libel, but the trial judge ruled in favor of the newspaper, finding that Anderson did not present evidence that Kent acted with actual malice — that he knew the editorial was false or recklessly disregarded whether it was true or not. The state court of appeals reversed and ordered that the case go before a jury to decide whether Kent acted with actual malice and the supreme court unanimously affirmed.
“The central issue of this case is whether any evidence exists tending to prove that Kent recklessly disregarded the truth when he published the article ‘Let the Liar Run.’ If such evidence exists, the question of actual malice is a question of fact for a jury,” Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal wrote for the court. “We find that the record includes sufficient circumstantial evidence that Kent recklessly disregarded the truth when he published the article to place the question of actual malice before the jury.”
(Anderson v. The Augusta Chronicle, Media Counsel: David E. Hudson, Hull Towill Norman Barrett & Salley, Augusta) — GP