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Failure to verify comments doesn’t show recklessness

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From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 32.

From the Summer 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 32.

Failing to investigate an anonymous accusation before publishing it does not necessarily make a case for reckless disregard of the truth, the state Supreme Court held in June.

The court overturned a jury verdict for a police chief that was prompted by a newspaper reader’s questioning of whether the chief was being paid off by drug dealers.

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An anonymous caller left a message on the Gaffney Ledger’s answering machine in 1995, as readers are invited to do. A transcript was printed in the paper on May 17, 1995.

“I often wonder if the drug dealers are paying the chief of Blacksburg,” the caller was quoted as saying in the “What’s Your Beef?” column.

Cody Sossamon, Ledger editor, made the decision to publish the item. Sossamon added a caption over the item, which read: “Are the drug dealers paying?”

The police chief, Wayne Elder, sued the newspaper, arguing that Sossamon intended to suggest that the accusation was true.

To prove that Sossamon acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth — Elder argued that Sossamon failed to investigate or verify the information left by the anonymous caller; that the phone recording of the anonymous caller was “erased”; that Sossamon pled guilty to manufacturing marijuana in 1991; and that Sossamon had been “rude” to Elder’s wife on one occasion when she was at the newspaper to place an ad for her husband.

Sossamon countered that he thought the information could be true, but never suggested it was true. He testified that he lacked enough evidence to treat the allegation as fact. No news or opinion piece was ever written, he noted.

In 1997, a Cherokee County Circuit Court jury awarded Elder $10,000 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages, which a state Court of Appeals upheld.

The state Supreme Court reversed the decision in June 2000, saying that actual malice is not established by mere failure to investigate before publishing, even when doing so would have been reasonable.

Holding Elder to the higher standard of proving “actual malice” because he was a public figure, the state’s high court said there was no “clear and convincing” evidence that Sossamon had “purposefully avoided the truth.”

“This evidence is patently insufficient to demonstrate Sossamon in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the publication,” the court found.

Noting that the information ran in a “clearly designated editorial/opinion column,” the court found that the fact that Sossamon did not have enough information to use the item as a news story “simply does not demonstrate he had substantial doubt as to its truth,” the court added.

The court rejected the Court of Appeals’ finding that Sossamon’s alleged rudeness to Elder’s wife was relevant. “It is possible Sossamon is generally a rude person, or was in a bad mood on the day in question, or perhaps has a dislike of Mrs. Elder,” the court said.

The court also rejected the Court of Appeals’ finding that Sossamon’s past conviction was relevant, pointing out Sossamon’s testimony that he owed his life to the fact that he was arrested, and that Elder was not involved in Sossamon’s arrest. The high court also rejected the appellate court’s finding that the late introduction of the tape was evidence of malice.

A dissenting justice said that printing information from an anonymous phone call without any attempt to verify it demonstrates reckless disregard for the truth. He added that Sossamon’s behavior toward the chief’s wife and his past conviction should be allowed as evidence of his motive for printing the allegations without verifying them.