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Mass. high court applies fair report privilege to anonymous sources

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court earlier this month ruled that the fair report privilege, which protects reporters from legal liability…

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court earlier this month ruled that the fair report privilege, which protects reporters from legal liability who quote from official sources and documents, can also apply to information obtained anonymously, the First Amendment Center reported.

In a 6-1 decision, the court on Jan. 7 said that as long as an article fairly and accurately reported an official government action, even by way of a confidential source, a newspaper could invoke the privilege.

The Enterprise of Brockton, Mass., published a series of 11 articles about a municipal sewer department superintendent, James Howell, who was fired for having inappropriate images on his office computer and government-owned laptop. The newspaper’s articles used the terms “porn” and “pornography” and quoted an anonymous government official close to the investigation. Official reports described the images as pornographic.

When the superintendent filed a defamation and emotional distress lawsuit, The Enterprise asked the judge to dismiss the suit, arguing the statements in question were protected by the fair report privilege.

While the trial and appellate courts denied the request to qualify the statements as privileged, the high court sided with the newspaper. The court ruled that because descriptions in the articles were substantially accurate and based on the official accusations made against Howell, they were within the bounds of information protected by the privilege.

In its decision, the high court wrote that the public policy behind the fair report privilege extended to information from anonymous sources.