Newspaper not shielded by neutral report on private figure
CALIFORNIA–The neutral reportage privilege, which shields the news media from liability for libel when they accurately and disinterestedly publish newsworthy accounts of defamatory statements, does not apply to private figures, the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles unanimously held in early June.
The court did not reach the issue of whether the neutral reportage privilege exists in California, but held that such a privilege would apply only to cases in which the plaintiff is a public figure. The news media’s First Amendment rights must yield to the right of a private individual to protect his or her reputation, the court said.
The court found that the plaintiff, Khalid Khawar, was not a public figure. Khawar, a news photographer, attended a campaign rally for Sen. Robert Kennedy on June 4, 1968 — the day Kennedy was assassinated. But his presence at the rally was not sufficient to make him a public figure because he did not thrust himself to the forefront of a public controversy or seek to influence the resolution of a public issue, the court ruled.
The libel suit arose from an April 1989 article in The Globe, a national weekly tabloid, under the headline: “Former CIA agent claims: IRANIANS KILLED BOBBY KENNEDY FOR THE MAFIA.” The article reported on a book by Robert Morrow, “The Senator Must Die,” that claimed Kennedy’s real killer was Ali Ahmand, Khawar’s father. The Globe article included a photo, previously published in Morrow’s book, that showed Khawar standing on a stage near Kennedy, who was speaking from the podium. The newspaper added an arrow that pointed to Khawar and identified him as Ali Ahmand.
Both Khawar and Ahmand sued The Globe in 1989. The newspaper argued that they were public figures because they were both subjects of Morrow’s book. In addition, The Globe contended that, even if Khawar was not a public figure, the newspaper should not be held liable for reporting on a previously-published allegation against a private figure.
The trial court dismissed Ahmand’s claim on the ground that the article was not “of and concerning” him. The Court of Appeal upheld that ruling.
The Globe has appealed the appellate court’s decision to the California Supreme Court. (Khawar v. Globe International; Media Counsel: Anthony Glassman, Barbara Tarlow, Los Angeles)