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No privilege for repeating comments about public officials

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No privilege for repeating comments about public officials

  • The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the First Amendment does not provide a “neutral report privilege” for newsworthy comments about public officials.

Oct. 26, 2004 — Neither the First Amendment nor the Pennsylvania Constitution recognize an absolute privilege for the news media to publish newsworthy statements made by one public official about another, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled last week. Such statements may be the basis of a defamation lawsuit where the plaintiff is able to prove that the media published them with actual malice.

The lawsuit stemmed from an April 20, 1995, story in the (West Chester) Daily Local News titled “Slurs, insults drag town into controversy.” The story reported that Parkersburg Borough Councilman William Glenn Sr. had issued a written statement calling Council President James Norton III and Mayor Alan Wolfe “queers and child molesters.”

Norton and Wolfe sued Glenn, the Daily Local News , the paper’s owner and publisher, and reporter Tom Kennedy for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. The false light claims were later dismissed and not appealed.

On Aug. 2, 1999, the trial court ruled that the newspaper and other media defendants were entitled to a “neutral report privilege” to accurately report Glenn’s statements, even if they published them with actual malice — meaning they knew or had reason to believe the statements were false. The jury then found Glenn liable for defamation, but not the media defendants because they were found to have reported the statement accurately.

Norton and Wolfe appealed, and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed on March 18, 2002. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the Superior Court Oct. 20.

The opinion by Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy rejected “the radical notion that media defendants, in repeating newsworthy comments regarding a public official, will be relieved from liability even where the public official-plaintiff can establish that the media defendants acted with actual malice.”

After examining U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the court unanimously found that such a privilege had not been recognized under the First Amendment. “[S]uch a privilege would essentially obliterate the states’ power to provide protection, via defamation actions, to a person’s reputation,” the court held.

Cappy noted that the rejected “neutral report privilege” is different from the “fair report privilege” which protects publishing fair and accurate reports of government proceedings.

The case was remanded for a new trial to determine if the media defendants published the statements with actual malice.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Ronald D. Castille expressed favor for a neutral report privilege, but wrote that it would have to come from the U.S. Supreme Court. He also noted that the media defendants should be permitted at the new trial to demonstrate that the statements were protected by the fair report privilege.

On Oct. 20 the court also ruled in another case that an attorney was not immune from defamation liability for sending a publicly filed court document that contained defamatory statements to a reporter.

(Norton v. Glenn; Media Counsel: Michael E. Baughman, Dechert LLP, Philadelphia; Bochetto v. Gibson) GP

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