This section covers the state law governing libel suits. The standards governing such suits are influenced by many things, including whether the subject of a story is a public figure or public official. This also covers the defenses to libel suits, including the "fair report" privilege, the opinion defense and anti-SLAPP laws.

Rethinking hyperlinking

Linking to source material can help journalists in defamation lawsuits
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Cindy Gierhart

Media scholars have noted for years that news outlets lag significantly behind blogs in their use of hyperlinks. But recent court cases suggest that news media may want to increase their use of hyperlinks as a way of defending against defamation lawsuits.

Three scenarios demonstrate ways that hyperlinks have helped media defendants.

Scenario #1: Facts supporting an opinion

Anatomy of a Brief: Scholz v. Boston Herald

A detailed look at a recent Reporters Committee amicus brief
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Cindy Gierhart

In early May, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the highest court in Massachusetts, weighing in on a central tenet of libel law: opinion.

“Opinion” has a broad meaning in libel law

“Opinion” in libel law can encompass more types of speech than the traditional “opinions” you might think of in everyday speech.

In one sense, opinion in libel law can mean exactly what you think. For example, a columnist writes on the editorial pages of the newspaper that she thinks the city council made a bad decision or laments that the city’s new billboards look gaudy.

These statements are protected because, frankly, people are allowed to have opinions. They cannot be “wrong” because they cannot be proven false.

Connecticut court: No liability for linking to defamatory article

Cindy Gierhart | Libel | News | May 15, 2014
May 15, 2014

A Connecticut appellate court ruled Tuesday that a website is not liable for linking to someone else’s defamatory statements, even if the website endorsed the statements.

In Vazquez v. Buhl, a senior editor for CNBC's web site posted an article online that linked to an article written by Teri Buhl. Buhl's article contained allegedly defamatory statements.

The CNBC editor introduced the linked article by saying, “I don’t want to steal Buhl’s thunder, so click on her report for the big reveal.” The editor titled the CNBC story “The Sex and Money Scandal Rocking Hedge Fund Land” and referred to Buhl as “a veteran financial reporter” who “knows her way around the Connecticut hedge fund beat.”

Texas Supreme Court: Corporations may suffer reputational damage

Cindy Gierhart | Libel | News | May 12, 2014
May 12, 2014

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that corporations – and not just individuals – may recover for reputational damage in defamation lawsuits.

Typically, defendants have to prove specific financial damage resulting from the defamatory statements, unless the type of defamation is considered “defamation per se,” in which case damages are presumed. One category of statements that are often considered defamatory per se are statements attacking a person’s job-related abilities or professional stature.

In Waste Management of Texas, Inc. v. Texas Disposal Systems Landfill, Inc., two companies competed for waste-disposal and landfill contracts with city governments. One company allegedly distributed an anonymous communication claiming the other company engaged in environmentally harmful behavior.

Abbas v. Foreign Policy Group LLC

April 2, 2014

The Reporters Committee joined a media coalition brief, urging the D.C. Circuit to uphold a decision dismissing a defamation claim under the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act. The magazine Foreign Policy reported that Palestinian businessman Yasser Abbas, the son of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, traded off his political connections to become wealthy. Abbas is challenging the Anti-SLAPP Act’s applicability in a federal court.

Adelson v. Harris

May 7, 2014

The Reporters Committee joined a brief opposing an appeal by casino owner Sheldon Adelson in his libel suit against the National Jewish Democratic Council. The case had been dismissed under the Nevada anti-SLAPP statute and as non-actionable opinion based on hyperlinked sources. NJDC had published a petition on its website entitled “Tell Romney to Reject Adelson’s Dirty Money,” which alleged Adelson had personally approved a prostitution plan in his Macao casino.

Washington appellate court upholds political speech and discovery provision under anti-SLAPP statute

Cindy Gierhart | Libel | News | May 6, 2014
May 6, 2014

A Washington state appellate court reversed the denial of an anti-SLAPP motion, holding that “speech connected to a political campaign and candidate . . . clearly are matters of public concern.” The court also held that the statute’s stay on discovery is not unconstitutional.

When Bradley Toft ran for the Washington State Senate in 2012, Kelly Spratt, a former employee of Toft’s and a fellow Republican, vocally opposed his candidacy. She claimed Toft had an abusive management style that the entire company had problems with.

Toft responded by saying Spratt had been fired and was a disgruntled former employee, while Spratt maintains she resigned voluntarily. Spratt claims Toft wrote an anonymous letter accusing Spratt of harassing Toft.

Scholz v. Boston Herald

May 1, 2014

Tom Scholz, founder of the band Boston, sued the Boston Herald for libel over a series of stories that discussed motivating factors that may have led fellow band member Brad Delp to take his own life. The Reporters Committee and 25 other media organizations argued the Herald's statements were protected opinion because the Herald disclosed truthful facts that formed the basis of the statements, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from the facts presented, and because the Herald's conjecture as to why Delp may have taken his own life cannot be proven false and therefore cannot be actionable. The brief noted that offering analysis and speculation is an important part of journalism that contributes to a robust public discourse on matters of public importance, and the court must allow this type of speech to continue unhindered.

Mann v. National Review II

April 22, 2014

The Reporters Committee and 28 other news organizations filed an amicus brief with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals urging it to accept jurisdiction to hear an immediate appeal of the denial of a special motion to dismiss under the D.C. anti-SLAPP statute. This is the second time this case has come before this court. During the first round, the court dismissed the appeal as moot because defendants appealed a decision on the original complaint, but Mann had filed an amended complaint that superseded the first, and the lower court still hadn't ruled on the motion to dismiss the amended complaint. The parties are now back in the Court of Appeals after the lower court denied defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint.

Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Otter

April 28, 2014

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, ACLU of Idaho, and others filed suit alleging that Idaho's "ag gag" statute is unconstitutional. The statute criminalizes the recording of an agricultural production facility's operations without the facility owner's express consent. It also criminalizes obtaining records of an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation, or trespass. It defines "agricultural production" broadly, including preparing land for agriculture, handling pesticides, making repairs, and raising or keeping animals, fish, bees, and so on. It includes both private and public operations. The Reporters Committee, joined by 15 other news organizations, argued that the Idaho statute weakens food safety guarantees at the same time it stifles free speech. Journalists' investigations into meat-processing facilities have long been credited with advancing the safety of the food the public consumes.