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Letters to editor given free-speech protection

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         OHIO         Libel         Sep 18, 2001    

Letters to editor given free-speech protection

  • The state Supreme Court decided that letter writers’ opinions are shielded from libel lawsuits in some circumstances.

Writers of letters to the editor enjoy the same state constitutional protection for their opinions as newspaper reporters, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 29. The letter writers may invoke the Ohio Constitution’s special protection for opinions even though they are not members of the media, the court said in a 5-2 decision.

“Constitutionally significant debate on matters of public concern is not the sole province of the media,” wrote Justice Deborah L. Cook for the majority. “The robust exchange of ideas that occurs each day on the editorial pages of our state’s newspapers could indeed suffer if the nonmedia authors of letters to the editor published in these forums were denied the same constitutional protections enjoyed by the editors themselves.”

However, whether writers of letters to the editor will win libel lawsuits depends on the “totality of the circumstances,” the court ruled. Courts will examine the specific language in the letter, the possibility of verifying the statement, the general context of the statement and the broader context in which the statement appeared.

The issue arose when Isaac Wampler, a landlord in Circleville, Ohio, sued Wallace Higgins for defamation. Higgins had written a letter to the editor of The (Circleville) Herald calling Wampler a “ruthless speculator” who had “forced (a tenant) out of business by charging her exorbitant rent.”

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the statements were not defamatory under the state constitution. The language in Higgins’ letter was “inherently imprecise and subject to myriad subjective interpretations,” the ruling said. Because descriptions such as “exorbitant” and “ruthless” cannot be verified, readers couldn’t have interpreted those statements as conveying actual facts, the ruling said.

Noting that the editorial page is a forum “traditionally linked to vigorous expressions of opinion regarding matters of public concern,” the court found that both the context of the letter and the broader context of the opinion page protected Higgins’ statements.

(Wampler v. Higgins. Appellee counsel: Thomas R. McGrath, McGrath & Breitfeller; and James K. Hill) MD

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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