Court won’t second-guess newsworthiness of ‘economic spousal abuse’
From the Winter 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 25.
The state’s highest court in Albany ruled in mid-December that actress and singer Melba Moore’s divorce from Charles Huggins, in which Moore accused Huggins of “economic spousal abuse,” was a matter of legitimate public concern.
The New York Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling means Huggins will have to prove the New York Daily News was grossly irresponsible in writing and publishing articles about the divorce.
Three articles were published in the New York Daily News in June and July 1993 relating to bitterly contested divorce proceedings involving actress and singer Melba Moore and Charles Huggins.
Alleging “economic spousal abuse,” Moore accused Huggins of cheating her out of her interest in an entertainment management company the two built together and leaving her penniless. Additionally, she alleged Huggins abused her and their daughter.
In July 1993, Huggins brought a defamation action against the newspaper based on the three articles. Moore was named as a defendant in Huggins’ libel suit but was removed after filing for bankruptcy. Huggins claimed that Moore’s accusations, and the newspaper articles chronicling the divorce and those accusations, ruined his reputation and financially damaged his entertainment management company.
The trial court dismissed Huggins’ suit, and he appealed to a state intermediate appellate court.
The intermediate appellate court held in early April 1999 that “matters publicized were not of public concern” since they did not address any “socially important issues.” The appellate court held that the divorce was a private matter and that Huggins had to prove only simple negligence, rather than gross negligence, to recover for libel.
Simple negligence involves creating an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Gross negligence by the media generally requires acting in “a grossly irresponsible manner without due consideration for the standards of information gathering and dissemination ordinarily followed by responsible parties.”
The newspaper appealed to New York’s highest court in Albany.
The question presented on appeal was whether the three articles were “arguably within the sphere of legitimate public concern.” If they were not, the “gross irresponsibility” standard would apply to Huggins’ libel suit.
The newspaper argued to the state’s highest court that “barring exceptional circumstances, determinations of what editorial content is of legitimate public interest and concern are to be made by editors, not judges.”
Furthermore, it argued, determining that the matter at issue was not “arguably within the sphere of legitimate public opinion” would “lead to a radical contraction of reporting on matters involving the intersection of arguably private lives and matters deemed by the press to be of interest to the public.”
“Editors of newspapers such as the Daily News evaluate information to determine whether it is likely to be of interest to readers and, if so, how to present it , where to place it and how to confirm it before publication,” argued the newspaper. Moreover, it asserted, “There has been no allegation of venal or vindictive conduct by the Daily News here, no claim that it failed to publish what it believed was newsworthy.”
Huggins replied that the intermediate appellate court was correct in ruling that a simple negligence standard should apply. Additionally, he argued that a review of the articles as a whole indicates that their content “is not even ‘arguably within the sphere of legitimate public concern'” — they
appeared in a gossip column, and their substance “confirms that they are mere gossip.”
Finally, Huggins argued that the existence of a divorce court proceeding does not automatically transform stories into topics of legitimate public concern. Huggins asserted that the intermediate appellate court was correct in finding that the articles addressed private matters, given the “inherently sensitive nature of the facts underlying a divorce.”
In December 1999, New York’s high court found that the lower court had not properly deferred to the editorial judgment of the newspaper in concluding that the divorce was a private matter.
“Absent clear abuse, the courts will not second-guess editorial decisions as to what constitutes matters of genuine public concern,” Judge Howard Levine wrote for the Court of Appeals. “Human interest” portrayals of events in the lives of private persons can be newsworthy, so long as “some theme of legitimate public concern can reasonably be drawn from their experience.”
The Daily News articles “portrayed Moore’s alleged victimization by her financial as well as marital partner to the point of economic and career ruination. It is this episode of human interest that reflected a matter of genuine social concern.”
In addition, the details of her divorce were not so remote from the matter of public concern as to constitute an abuse of editorial discretion, the court found. The court recognized Moore’s story, and the newspaper articles about her divorce, as having more than just private or personal significance because the articles explored the “allegedly pervasive modern phenomenon of economic spousal abuse.”
The Court of Appeals’ unanimous ruling means Huggins will have to prove the Daily News was grossly irresponsible in writing and publishing articles about the divorce. The trial court must determine whether the case should be dismissed under that standard. (Huggins v. Moore)