NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · PENNSYLVANIA · Libel · May 25, 2005
Fair report defense rejected over ‘spin’
May 25, 2005 · A woman whom three newspapers described as being named in a domestic-violence petition when she was a not a defendant can pursue her defamation claim against the papers because the stories were not protected by the fair report privilege, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled Tuesday.
Though Pennsylvania recognizes the fair report privilege, which protects journalists from defamation liability when they report on government proceedings, it did not apply to three Lancaster newspapers which implied in late 1997 and early 1998 that lawyer Gail Weber was a defendant in a domestic dispute, the state Superior Court ruled.
“The articles do contain literal truth, but the ‘spin’ on that truth is misleading,” Judge Maureen Lally-Green wrote for the appellate court.
The Solanco Sun Ledger, Sunday News and Lancaster New Era reported on a petition for a restraining order filed by Dawn Smeltz against her domestic partner, Patricia Kelly, in late 1997. The petition contained the sentence: “Patti’s friend, Gail Weber, phoned me at work, harassing me.” Weber sued, alleging that the newspapers’ stories left the false impression that she was a defendant.
The trial court granted summary judgment to the papers in 2004, ruling that the state’s fair report privilege immunized them from liability. After the appeals court asked for a more thorough opinion, the lower court earlier this year reaffirmed that the privilege applied to most of Weber’s claims.
A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court disagreed, ruling that a “reasonable jury” could conclude that the articles convey the false impression that Weber was a defendant. The articles’ headlines helped convey that untrue notion, the court said.
“While it is literally true that Weber was ‘named’ and ‘accused’ in the petition, the fact remains that she was mentioned only incidentally in a petition that overwhelmingly concerns Officer Kelley. The article’s headline and lead paragraphs, however, do convey the misleading impression that Weber was named as a defendant in Smeltz’s petition,” Lally-Green wrote.
The appeals court rejected an argument by the papers that Weber, a lawyer in a private-practice law firm, is a public official and therefore must prove the papers acted with “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The trial court did not rule on the issue, and the appellate court ruled that Weber was not so famous or notorious as to be a public figure.
George C. Werner Jr., the attorney for Lancaster Newspapers Inc., the company’s papers and reporter Gilbert Smart, and John C. Connell, who represents Ledger Newspapers, the Sun Ledger and reporter Lynn Ney, told The Associated Press that their clients will appeal.
“The court said you can say something that is literally true but somehow spin the truth,” Connell told AP. “It just doesn’t make sense. We intend to defend it vigorously.”
(Weber v. Lancaster Newspapers Inc. et al., Media Counsel: George C. Werner Jr., Barley Snyder, Lancaster, Pa., John C. Connell, Archer & Greiner, Haddonfield, N.J.) — KM