The New Jersey Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that journalists who report accurately from court filings are protected from defamation suits.
In Salzano v. North Jersey Media Group, the court upheld the state’s fair report privilege and said that news reports containing a "full, fair and accurate" account of court complaints have an absolute privilege with regard to defamation lawsuits. In the court’s opinion, Justice Virginia Long stressed the media’s role in representing the public interest.
The opinion pointed out that citizens can access pretrial filings and to prevent the media from reporting from the same documents would have an "anomalous result."
"Members of the public simply cannot attend every single court case and cannot oversee every single paper filing, although clearly entitled to do so," Long wrote.
"Thus, it is critical for the press to be able to report fairly and accurately on every aspect of the administration of justice, including the complaint and answer, without fear of having to defend a defamation case."
North Jersey Media Group asked the state’s high court to review a 2008 appellate ruling that considerably narrowed the privilege by saying journalists who reported from court documents were only protected from libel suits if they used final judgments, not pretrial filings.
In the case, plaintiff Thomas John Salzano had sued the owners of two New Jersey papers for libel after the papers reported details from pleadings in a federal bankruptcy lawsuit against him that included descriptions of an alleged misappropriation of funds from a telecommunications company. The trial court had dismissed the libel claim, citing the fair report privilege.