A New York appeals court has ruled that a local newspaper and its reporter were not liable for defamation despite incorrectly reporting that a school teacher collected money from students for a “slush fund” used to buy an air conditioner for the faculty.
In the unsigned ruling, the Brooklyn-based Second Department, Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court stated that as a private figure engaged in a matter of public concern, the school teacher needed to prove the newspaper acted “in a grossly irresponsible manner” that ignored traditional newsgathering practices. The court essentially reversed its own six-year-old decision to deny summary judgment dismissal of a suit filed by the teacher, Gerard Matovcik, against the Village Beacon Record and reporter Peter C. Mastrosimone.
Matovcik, a former head of the Miller Place High School English department, sued the Long Island newspaper following Mastrosimone's 2004 article. The story claimed that Matovcik “misappropriated” funds by charging students $5 for workbooks already paid for by “district taxpayers.” The article went on to claim that Matovcik then used this money to purchase an air conditioner for a teachers’ room and lunches for faculty meetings.
“Mastrosimone verified a report from an anonymous source that the funds had been used for these expenses by contacting, among others, a school superintendent,” according to the opinion. “Although it was later revealed that the air conditioner and faculty lunches were on a list of proposed expenses, and were never actually purchased with the workbook fees, we cannot say, under these circumstances, that Mastrosimone was grossly irresponsible.”
A Suffolk County trial judge dismissed Matovcik’s libel suit in 2006, but the Appellate Division’s Second Department reversed the ruling one year later, concluding that the newspaper could not establish the statements it published were “substantially true” to defeat dismissal of the suit. However, the appellate division reversed itself on July 3 in favor of the newspaper.