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Court dismisses businessman’s privacy claim over gossip column

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  1. Libel and Privacy
On Nov. 26, a state Appeals Court in Boston upheld a lower court's dismissal of a prominent local businessman's privacy…

On Nov. 26, a state Appeals Court in Boston upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a prominent local businessman’s privacy suit against the Boston Herald over a story on a paternity suit.

The dispute arose out of a column that ran in the Herald in January 1990 that discussed the existence of a pending paternity action against real estate professional John M. Peckham. In July 1992, Peckham filed suit against the columnist and his attorney, from whom the columnist received information about the paternity action. In September 1994, he amended his suit to include a claim against the Herald for public disclosure of private facts.

According to the appellate court, among several factors that indicated reasonable minds would agree on the article’s newsworthiness were: Peckham’s notoriety as a “prominent real estate professional” and as a “recognized civic leader,” topics of “general modern public interest” touched upon by the article in question, and the fact that the column focused on a judicial proceeding — a “subject of inherent interest and concern to the public.” The Herald had argued that the even if the paternity action itself were private, there was no merit to Peckham’s invasion of privacy action because the information was a matter of “legitimate public concern.”

The appellate court found that the trial court correctly dismissed the invasion of privacy suit against the Herald.

Also at issue was whether “the legitimacy of public concern” should be decided by the judge — allowing a judge to dismiss the case before it goes before a jury — or by a jury.

The appellate court rejected the view that it should always be a question for the jury, because “that view eschews the well-recognized gatekeeper function of the judiciary.” Furthermore, the appellate court found that it is for the court to find whether “reasonable minds could differ as to how the community would regard the publication at issue.”

(Peckham v. Boston Herald, Inc.; Media Counsel: Elizabeth Ritvo, Boston)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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