A New Hampshire man’s defamation suit against a local newspaper that in 1999 quoted police linking him to "more than 1,000 crimes" was dismissed late last month, with the court finding the officers’ statements fell under a qualified privilege — and so did The (Nashua) Telegraph in publishing them.
The ruling came months after the case, Thomas v. Telegraph Publishing et al., wound its way up to the state Supreme Court partly on whether plaintiff Terry Thomas’s criminal history rendered his reputation so poor that he was effectively libel-proof. In 2005, ruling on the newspaper and the officers’ motions for summary judgment, the lower court said yes; the higher court last year disagreed, sent the case back down and outlined a standard for the term involving notoriety and widespread publicity.
With that matter settled, the issue in Judge William Groff’s Aug. 19 opinion was the qualified privilege the defendants claimed in seeking summary judgment.
Thomas was arrested in the fall of 1999, charged and ultimately convicted of receiving stolen property. As his case was unfolding, Telegraph reporter Joshua Trudell wrote a story quoting several police officers detailing what they then believed to be Thomas’s links to a slew of other crimes. Thomas sued the newspaper and the officers for defamation.
Groff found that the officers’ words were spoken "in good faith, on a lawful occasion, and for a justifiable purpose" and so met the standard for a qualified privilege. According to the opinion, Thomas cited an out-of-state case — Bender v. City of Seattle — to argue that the officers’ words were "gratuitous," and so not deserving of a privilege. But New Hampshire law has no caveat for gratuitous statements, Groff said, and the case doesn’t apply.
As for The Telegraph, the judge said, the newspaper was privileged in printing the statements as Trudell had thoroughly reported the story and believed, "in good faith," that what he wrote was true and a matter of public interest. Thomas would have to make a case for actual malice on the part of the newspaper or the officers to overcome the qualified privilege, Groff wrote, and he had not.