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Court strikes down 'malice' exception in state libel law

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Court strikes down 'malice' exception in state libel law 04/20/98 MASSACHUSETTS--In late March the state Supreme Judicial Court in Boston…

Court strikes down ‘malice’ exception in state libel law

04/20/98

MASSACHUSETTS–In late March the state Supreme Judicial Court in Boston ruled that a state law allowing libel suits over truthful statements printed with “actual malice” is unconstitutional.

The law, drafted in the 19th century, provided that the truth of the matter contained in a publication was a defense against libel suits “unless actual malice is proved.” At the time the statute was passed, “actual malice” referred to ill will, hatred or hostility rather than the “knowing falsehood” interpretation of the term adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964.

In 1985 the state high court declared the law unconstitutional as applied to public figures or officials who file libel suits, but left unanswered the question of whether it would be constitutional if applied to private individuals who sue for libel.

The court held that the Superior Court in Lowell correctly concluded that Itzik Shaari, the manager of a youth hostel that was reviewed unfavorably in the 1989 and 1990 editions of the travel guide “Let’s Go: Egypt & Israel,” was a private figure for the purposes of his libel suit against the preparer and publisher of the guides. The 1989 guide advised travelers to avoid Shaari’s hostel because the manager was “being sued on sexual harassment charges by 3 different women.” The 1990 guide similarly suggested that the hostel be avoided unless the management changed.

Nonetheless, the court concluded that because the subject of the review was a matter of legitimate public concern, Shaari would have to prove that the guides’ defamatory statements about his hostel were not only malicious but also false. Allowing a showing of malice to overcome defenses based on truth violated the First Amendment, the court held. (Shaari v. Harvard Student Agencies, Inc.; Media Counsel: John Lankenau, New York)