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High court upholds dismissal of suit over campaign literature

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         SOUTH CAROLINA         Libel         Jun 28, 2001    

High court upholds dismissal of suit over campaign literature

  • The state Supreme Court found that “clear and convincing” proof of actual malice is required when public figures bring libel suits.

Speech made during political campaigns is entitled to the broadest of protections, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on June 25 in upholding the dismissal of a defamation case brought by a city council member against his defeated opponent.

The court held that Margaret Fabri deserved summary judgment because Charleston City council member G. Robert George failed to prove certain Fabri campaign statements were made with actual malice. A court will dismiss a case on summary judgment if there are no facts to be decided at trial and one party is entitled to win as a matter of law.

“In a political campaign, the guarantee of free speech must be protected with special vigilance to ensure the optimal functioning of the democratic process,” Justice John H. Waller said in the opinion.

During her unsuccessful 1997 campaign, Fabri suggested in a piece of campaign literature that George might be a “supremacist” because one of his campaign supporters, Henry Jordan, had recently made bigoted statements. Jordan, a member of the state board of education, had advocated placing the Ten Commandments in all public schools and said, “Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims.”

Fabri had also said that George’s election to the Council would be a conflict of interest because he was a paid consultant to an adjacent town’s public service district. Because the two jurisdictions had legal squabbles, George’s loyalties would be a conflict, Fabri claimed.

Finally, Fabri surmised that George obtained public contracts through nepotism. George and his father-in-law were both previously on the James Island Public Service District, the agency that awarded George consulting contracts.

After he won the election, George sued Fabri on behalf of himself and his engineering firm. The court ruled that his firm was a public figure because George injected his firm’s reputation into the campaign by mentioning it in his own campaign materials.

The state Supreme Court said none of Fabri’s statements were made with actual malice because there was no proof she knew the statements were false, and she had no obligation to investigate the accuracy of her statements before speaking.

Waller called Fabri’s act of linking a supporter’s philosophy to a candidate “a common campaign practice.” Although it might be negligent to accuse a rival candidate, the court stated, negligence is not enough to prove actual malice.

Finally, the court set the summary judgment standard for actual malice as clear and convincing proof. Previously the court had not determined an appropriate standard.

But the court was clearly influenced by the fact that the statements were made in the context of a political campaign. Quoting a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1989, Waller said, “Vigorous reportage of political campaigns is necessary for the optimal functioning of democratic institutions and central to our history of individual liberty.”

(George v. Fabri; Defendant’s counsel: Armand Derfner and D. Peters Wilborn, Jr., Derfner & Wilborn, Charleston, S.C.) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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