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Entertainer’s divorce a matter of public concern

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW YORK         Libel         Dec 22, 1999    

Entertainer’s divorce a matter of public concern

  • Allegations of ‘economic abuse’ in Melba Moore’s divorce were of legitimate public concern, and her former husband will have to prove gross negligence to recover libel damages from a newspaper, the state’s high court ruled.

The state’s highest court in Albany ruled on Dec. 20 that actress and singer Melba Moore’s divorce from Charles Huggins, in which Moore accused Huggins of “economic spousal abuse,” was a matter of legitimate public concern. The Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling means Huggins will have to prove the New York Daily News was grossly irresponsible in writing and publishing articles about the divorce in 1994.

The decision overturns an intermediate appellate court’s ruling that the divorce was a private matter and that Huggins had to prove only simple negligence, rather than gross negligence, to recover for libel. Simple negligence involves creating an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Gross negligence by the media generally requires acting in “a grossly irresponsible manner without due consideration for the standards of information gathering and dissemination ordinarily followed by responsible parties.”

The Court of Appeals found that the lower court had not properly deferred to the editorial judgment of the newspaper in concluding that the divorce was a private matter. The Daily News articles, Judge Howard Levine wrote for the Court of Appeals, “portrayed Moore’s alleged victimization by her financial as well as marital partner to the point of economic and career ruination. It is this episode of human interest that reflected a matter of genuine social concern.”

The court recognized Moore’s story, and the newspaper articles about her divorce, as having more than just private or personal significance because the articles explored the “allegedly pervasive modern phenomenon of economic spousal abuse.”

Moore has accused Huggins of cheating her out of her interest in an entertainment management company the two built together and leaving her penniless. She was named as a defendant in Huggins’ libel suit but was removed after filing for bankruptcy. Huggins claims that Moore’s accusations and the newspaper articles chronicling the divorce and those accusations have ruined his reputation and financially damaged his management company.

The Court of Appeals has sent the case back to trial for application of the gross irresponsibility standard to Huggins’ claims against the Daily News.

(Huggins v. Moore; Media Counsel: Eve Burton, New York City)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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