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Court finds no proof of actual malice, throws out jury award

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  1. Libel and Privacy
MISSISSIPPI-- The state Supreme Court in Jackson in early August threw out a $600,000 jury award against the Northeast (Tupelo)…

MISSISSIPPI– The state Supreme Court in Jackson in early August threw out a $600,000 jury award against the Northeast (Tupelo) Mississippi Daily Journal from a March 1997 libel case, after determining there was no evidence that the reporter or the newspaper harbored any doubts about the truth of a 1991 story linking a former chancery clerk to a drug bust.

A majority of Supreme Court justices concluded that reporter Sid Scott could have been more thorough in tracing the title to a truck seized in a drug bust that was, until a short time before the arrest, owned by Chancery Clerk Derwood McCullough. However, it said there was no evidence that Scott actually doubted that McCullough was the owner of the truck at the time the Daily Journal reported that he owned the vehicle. It was seized in the operation. McCullough’s claim could not survive under First Amendment principles requiring public figures to prove “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for truth or falsity.

McCullough had argued that Scott could not rely solely on state Tax Commission records that indicated he was the owner of the seized truck because Scott allegedly had seen him driving a different truck and because delays in title transfers can render Tax Commission records of ownership inaccurate. He also asserted that Scott and the newspaper opposed him politically and possibly wanted to hurt his chances for re-election by reporting that his truck was seized in a drug-related crime.

The newspaper clarified in a follow-up story that title to the truck had transferred to someone else shortly before the truck was seized. McCullough nevertheless sued Scott and the newspaper for libel in October 1991 in state court in Houston, where a jury awarded McCullough $300,000 in actual damages and $300,000 punitive damages.

A dissenting judge said, “There were more than sufficient ‘red flags’ indicating obvious reasons for Scott to doubt the truthfulness and accuracy of his source of information prior to publication.”

(Journal Publishing Co. v. McCullough; Media Counsel: Thomas Wicker, Tupelo)