Newspaper not required to prove truth to win dismissal of libel claim
PENNSYLVANIA–A newspaper defending itself in a libel suit does not have to prove that its publication was true in order to win summary judgment, because it would not have to meet such a burden at trial, the state Supreme Court unanimously held in mid-April.
The court reversed a ruling by the Superior Court in Philadelphia that denied the newspaper’s motion for summary judgment because it did not introduce evidence that the allegedly libelous publication was true. The Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper did not need to prove truth because the burden of proof during a trial would be on the plaintiff to prove falsity.
Allen Ertel, a former prosecutor, sued the Harrisburg Patriot- News after it published an article in late June 1985 that questioned whether Ertel had tampered with evidence during a 1974 murder trial. The article was based on a report by William Costopoulos, an attorney working for the man convicted in the 1974 trial.
Ertel asked for and received a published apology from the Patriot-News a week after the article was published. Nevertheless, Ertel sued the newspaper when it failed to contact him about his request for further corrections, according to the Associated Press.
The Supreme Court found that the Patriot-News was entitled to summary judgment because Ertel had not presented any evidence that the article was false. “His complaint failed even to allege that any specific statement in the June 30th article was false,” the court noted.
The court also granted Costopoulos summary judgment, holding that he was not responsible for publication of the newspaper. Ertel did not sue Costopoulos for preparing the report, but instead tried hold Costopoulos liable for the publication of the Patriot-News article. In order to do so, Ertel had to prove that Costopoulos “directed or participated” in the publication. The court found that Costopoulos did not act affirmatively when he told a Patriot-News reporter, “I don’t care what you do with [the report].” (Ertel v. The Patriot-News Company; Media Counsel: David Marion, Philadelphia)