News organizations try to limit influence of unfavorable libel decision
CALIFORNIA — Media organizations in August asked the California Supreme Court to “depublish” a lower court decision that says litigants and their attorneys can be sued for libel if they provide court documents to journalists.
In June, a state trial court in San Jose held that the distribution of a public court document to a newspaper was not a “privileged” communication, because the newspaper was not a party to the litigation.
The libel case arose when Elias Shahvar, a computer executive, sued his former company, ASP Computer Products, Inc., alleging improper financial conduct by a company director, according to the Wall Street Journal. Shahvar’s attorney faxed a copy of the lawsuit to the San Francisco Examiner, which ran the story. ASP Computer Products then filed a libel claim against Shahvar.
The lawsuits between Shahvar and ASP were settled after the San Jose court issued its decision allowing the libel claim to go forward, thereby preventing any appeal of the court’s libel ruling. However, media organizations have asked the state Supreme Court to depublish the lower court’s decision. If the unusual motion to depublish is granted, then the lower court opinion cannot be cited as precedent.
The media organizations requesting the depublication of the San Jose court’s ruling are the San Francisco Examiner, the Recorder, and the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association.
A prior California case reached the opposite holding on the same issue in 1990, according to the Wall Street Journal. In that case, an appellate court held that no libel action can result from distributing court documents to a reporter, because the documents, and any accurate reporting about them, are privileged.
However, courts in New Jersey and a few other states have ruled similarly to the San Jose court, reported the Wall Street Journal. Those court expressed concern about people who file malicious complaints to generate publicity and then drop the suit, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Shahvar v. Superior Court; Media Counsel: Tom Newton, Sacramento)