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Fair report privilege temporarily returns

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A New Jersey appellate court ruling that limited the defense of the fair report privilege has been temporarily suspended by…

A New Jersey appellate court ruling that limited the defense of the fair report privilege has been temporarily suspended by the state’s Supreme Court.

Though the court has not determined if it will hear the appeal, the one-paragraph order it issued Tuesday suspends the effect of the appellate ruling in the meantime, essentially returning the law for now to the more media-friendly state it was in.

The case, Salzano v. North Jersey Media Group, involved a libel claim against The Record and The Glen Ridge Voice. The plaintiff, Thomas John Salzano, filed the lawsuit after the newspapers reported that the bankruptcy trustee in New Jersey had filed a complaint against him for allegedly misappropriating roughly $500,000 from his father’s bankrupt telecommunications firm, NorVergence.

The appellate court in New Jersey ruled that though the fair report privilege has long provided journalists with a defense to libel suits for stories that quote from official proceedings, the privilege only applies when journalists quote from court decisions — not from court pleadings filed by individual parties, such as a bankruptcy trustee.

The newspapers appealed that decision to the state’s Supreme Court. The Reporters Committee signed on with 18 other news organizations to a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the New Jersey Press Association. The brief argued that limiting the fair report privilege chills speech by making it nearly impossible for reporters to know what type of court documents will be covered. The brief urged the Supreme Court to hold that the fair and accurate reporting of information contained in public court documents is constitutionally protected.

Thomas Cafferty, counsel for the New Jersey Press Association, was encouraged by Tuesday’s decision.

“We hope this bodes well for the court taking the case and ultimately reversing the appellate decision,” he said.