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Dismissal of libel claim over alleged racial slur upheld

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 18, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 18, 2005

The dismissal of a libel suit brought against a Pittsburgh television station which reported on a judge’s alleged use of a racial slur was upheld by an appellate court last week.

Oct. 18, 2005  ·   A Pennsylvania appellate court upheld the dismissal of a libel suit involving a television station’s coverage of a run-in at an airport because the plaintiff — a county judge who allegedly used a racial slur — did not prove the station acted with actual malice.

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania found that the station “spent a significant amount of time investigating the story and broadcasted reports that presented both sides of the story; as such, there is no actual malice and the trial court did not abuse its discretion,” Judge Justin Morris Johnson wrote for the 2-1 majority Oct. 11.

The case began after Allegheny County Court Judge Jeffrey A. Manning arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport on Dec. 20, 1995, with his fiancee, Kathleen Murphy, and his son, Richard Manning, and became angry after a piece of their luggage was torn while being X-rayed. Security personnel alleged that Jeffrey Manning used a racial slur in the ensuing fracas. However, there were many different stories from the security personnel about who said what and it was never proven that Manning said the racial slur.

WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh received an anonymous call about the incident. In their investigation, the reporters read the police report and interviewed everybody who was at the altercation who would go on camera.

The station broadcast its report on its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts on four days in February 1996. The report stated that Manning used the racial slur, but it also repeatedly stated that Manning, through his attorney, denied making the statement. Nearly a year later, in January 1997, Manning sued the station.

In November 2002 a trial court granted WPXI’s motion for summary judgment by finding that Manning could not show any evidence of actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — by WPXI. Manning appealed but the Superior Court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

“As the trial court properly found, Manning was unable to meet the rigorous actual malice standard,” Johnson wrote. “In its decision, the trial court noted that in addition to interviewing [the security guard at the center of the altercation], [WPXI] did not air the story until approximately 4-5 weeks after receiving the anonymous tips and after interviewing seven witnessed to the event. Further, [WPXI] interviewed every witness that was willing to speak with them.”

That was not enough for all of the judges. In his dissent, Judge Jack A. Panella said “that viewing the evidence and all inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to Manning demonstrates a genuine issue of fact from which a jury could reasonably find actual malice with convincing clarity.”

(Manning v. WPXI; Media Counsel: Walter P. DeForest of DeForest Koscelnik Yokitis & Kaplan, Pittsburgh, Pa.) — CM

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