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Dismissal of police officer's defamation suit upheld

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   PENNSYLVANIA   ·   Libel   ·   May 4, 2005

Dismissal of police officer’s defamation suit upheld

  • A letter to the editor about a police officer was not published with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled in affirming the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit.

May 4, 2005  ·   A police officer’s defamation lawsuit over a letter to the editor was properly dismissed last year because neither the newspaper nor the author acted with actual malice, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled Monday.

Although a statement in the June 1997 letter was false, it was a “good faith mistake of identity” that would not support an actual malice ruling, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled.

In June 1997, the Lancaster, Pa., Intelligencer Journal published a letter to the editor concerning the 1991 murder of Laurie Show and subsequent conviction of Lisa Michelle Lambert. Lambert’s conviction was later thrown out by a federal judge and during those proceedings Lambert accused East Lampeter Township Police Officer Robin Weaver and two other officers of raping her. No charges were filed against Weaver, and Lambert’s conviction was later reinstated by a federal appeals court.

The letter’s author, Oscar Lee Brownstein, a supporter of Lambert, questioned Weaver’s role in the investigation. Brownstein wrote in the letter that Weaver and the other two officers “were allegedly in the apartment raping Lambert at gunpoint” and that Weaver was “arraigned for the sexual abuse of women and children” five years after the investigation.

Weaver sued the newspaper, its corporate owner and Brownstein for defamation in June 1998, stating that he had never raped or been charged with raping Lambert, and had never been arraigned for the sexual abuse of women and children. The Court of Common Pleas in Lancaster dismissed the lawsuit last year and Weaver appealed.

On May 2, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the dismissal.

Judge Correale F. Stevens noted the distinction that “the letter to the editor did not state that [Weaver], in fact, raped Ms. Lambert; but rather, that [Weaver] ‘allegedly’ raped Ms. Lambert.” Because the rape allegation, made during the federal court proceeding, was a matter of public record, it could not be the basis of defamation liability, Stevens wrote.

The court also held that although the sexual abuse statement was false, that claim was properly dismissed because neither Brownstein nor the newspaper had published it with actual malice — the legal standard that requires public officials to prove that a false statement was made knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was false.

The court found that Brownstein had confused Weaver with another East Lampeter police officer who had been arraigned for sexual abuse, and that “a good faith mistake of identity made under the circumstances of this case would not support a finding of actual malice.” The court found that, even if the Intelligencer Journal should have investigated the statement before publishing it, there was no evidence that the newspaper had “reason to doubt Appellee Brownstein’s assertion or that the assertion was so highly improbable that only a reckless man would have put the assertion into circulation.”

Judge Seamus P. McCaffery wrote separately that while he agreed with the legal holding of the case, he disapproved of the way that “the ‘actual malice’ standard operates to allow an egregious and damaging misstatement of fact regarding a law enforcement officer to be published without any repercussions for the author or for the publication which has disseminated the false statement.”

(Weaver v. Lancaster Newspapers, George C. Werner, Barley Snyder, Lancaster, Pa.)GP

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