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Court rules reputational damage must be proven in radio ad case

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW JERSEY         Libel         Jun 15, 2000    

Court rules reputational damage must be proven in radio ad case

  • Producers of political radio commercials may have greater protection from defamation suits under a New Jersey court’s ruling that such defamation is more like libel than slander.

Burlington County’s appellate division of the Superior Court held on May 17 that a party must show actual reputational damage — the standard that has traditionally applied to print media — to collect damages for defamatory political radio commercials. In the unanimous ruling, the court reversed a lower court’s defamation judgment against a campaign media consultant.

Rosanio, Bailets & Talamo Inc. acted as a consultant for William Simon in his 1994 campaign for Camden County sheriff. The group ran a commercial that accused opponent Michael McLaughlin, who eventually won the election, of having leaked information to the Scarfo crime family.

Finding that the consultant had made the commercial knowing its message was false, the jury awarded McLaughlin $40,000 in reputational damages and assessed $250,000 in punitive damages against each defendant. But McLaughlin never proved that the commercial harmed his reputation, because the court had held that the allegations in the commercial constituted slander per se — a slanderous statement that is so clearly damaging to reputation that evidence of actual damage need not be presented.

Reversing the lower court’s judgment, the appellate court held that a radio broadcast, “as opposed to an in-person verbal exchange. . . was more akin to a libel than to a slander.” Because libel claims require proof of actual harm and no proof was offered, the court held that the damage award must be overturned.

Although the court said that injury to reputation “defies exact measurement,” it held that “some concrete proof” must be offered. In this case, the court said, there was no proof that anyone believed the commercials or that McLaughlin’s campaign or reputation had been harmed.

(McLaughlin v. Rosanio; Attorney: Richard Hyland, Cherry Hill) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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