Failure to verify official’s remarks not evidence of “actual malice”
LOUISIANA–An article that claimed an unnamed vocational rehabilitation counselor’s attorney had harassed a government official who had decertified the counselor was not written with “actual malice”–knowledge of falsity or disregard for the truth–merely because the writer did not verify the official’s comments, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously held in late June.
Two lower courts had ruled that the failure to verify the comments was sufficient proof of actual malice.
The article, published in the March 1990 issue of Louisiana Rehabilitation, paid tribute to Gene Bohlken, a former state Labor Department official who had recently died of cancer. Glenn Hebert, a vocational rehabilitation counselor, alleged that a statement in the article defamed him.
After remarking on how Bohlken had fought hard to bring respect to the rehabilitation profession, the article stated, “A counselor whom [Bohlken] decertified in his last few months was eventually reinstated, after the counselor’s attorney harassed Gene at work, at home, and even during his chemotherapy treatments.”
The Supreme Court held that, even assuming the statement was false, the author of the article did not act with reckless disregard of the truth merely because she relied on what Bohlken had told her. The author had no obligation to verify the accuracy of Bohlken’s statements, the court said.
The trial court found the statements to be “essentially false” because Hebert’s attorney did not have any contact with Bohlken until after Hebert’s recertification, and then only to subpoena him for a deposition. Both the trial court and the court of appeal found that the author of the article had acted with actual malice, a knowing or reckless disregard for whether or not the statements were true. The trial court awarded Hebert a $250 libel judgment.
In reversing the judgment, the Supreme Court held that Hebert had failed to prove actual malice, which Louisiana libel law requires in all libel cases, except those involving words that are defamatory on their face. (Hebert v. Louisiana Association of Rehabilitation Professionals; Media Counsel: Jack Weiss, Mark Holton, New Orleans)