A New York trial court judge dismissed a defamation claim brought by a convicted sex offender against a local newspaper that reported on his arrest and guilty plea.
Queens County Judge Sidney F. Strauss concluded this week that Wave Publishing Co., publishers of the weekly newspaper The Wave in Rockaway Beach, were protected by the state’s fair report privilege for a 2008 story concerning the criminal charges brought by local authorities against Jacek Marczewski, the custodian of a synagogue in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Statements made by others in certain settings and in official government documents are often granted either a conditional or total privilege by laws in many states if the reporter, in good faith, accurately reports information of public interest. This privilege usually applies to material from official meetings such as judicial proceedings, legislative hearings, city council meetings and grand jury deliberations. Reports of this nature must be accurate and fair in order for the reporter to invoke the fair report privilege.
Under New York Civil Rights Law Section 74, "fair and true" reports of such such proceedings are granted a complete immunity from defamation claims.
Marczewski was accused of molesting a child in the basement of the synagogue over a two-year period and ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of reckless endangerment stemming from the crime. Marczewski then sued both the publisher and author of the news report for defamation and punitive damages over the stories they wrote on his charges and subsequent trial proceedings.
Judge Strauss flatly noted in an opinion released on Tuesday that “fair and true” accounts in news reports receive an absolute privilege from libel claims brought by the subjects of those news reports.
“The purpose of (New York’s fair report privilege) is to protect reporting of matters which are in the public interest, as in this instance,” Judge Strauss wrote in the three-page opinion. “Accordingly, courts routinely construe the standard of ‘fair and true’ with wide latitude.”
Strauss seemed satisfied that the local newspaper fairly and accurately reported the incidents leading up to Marczewski’s ultimate conviction.
“No matter how the plaintiff attempts to couch the terms of his ultimate plea agreement, the facts underlying both the plea and the defendants’ reporting remain the same,” Strauss wrote, “both arise out of a criminal prosecution for fondling of the genitals of a minor.”