Libel suit over “fair report” of judge’s decision reinstated
MISSOURI–The Court of Appeals in St. Louis in early January let stand a decision holding that a newspaper story about a judge’s acquittal of a murder suspect was not protected from libel claims by the fair report privilege.
In late October, a panel of the court voted 2-1 to reinstate libel and civil conspiracy claims brought by Judge Lester Duggan Jr. after an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on his dismissal of a murder case. The news story, published in late May 1991, reported that Duggan threw out a murder case after hearing the prosecution’s evidence and that he did not state any reasons for doing so. The newspaper said all of the information came from judicial proceedings.
The fair report privilege applies to “fair and accurate” reports of judicial proceedings, the court noted. However, for purposes of the appeal, the court accepted the judge’s assertions that the news story included statements that were not true.
The court found that two statements in the news story could be found to be false. One alleged that Duggan previously had been barred from hearing criminal cases by Charles County prosecutors. The judge claimed that he had never been barred from hearing criminal cases.
The other statement alleged that the murder victim had “raised his hand and had been pleading for his life when the shot was fired.” It did not matter that the statement did not specifically refer to the judge because it reflected on his ability to decide cases fairly, the court ruled. (Duggan v. Pulitzer Publishing Co.; Media Counsel: Robert Hoemeke, St. Louis)