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North Carolina’s highest court should reverse $6 million defamation ruling against The News & Observer

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  1. Libel and Privacy

Update: On Aug. 14, 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued its opinion in Desmond v. News & Observer, holding that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence to support a finding of actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. The Court also held that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury on the issue of falsity. Finally, the Court held that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the issue of punitive damages, so it reversed on that issue and remanded for a new trial on punitive damages only.

Thirty media and news organizations, led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, are urging the North Carolina Supreme Court to reverse a ruling in a defamation lawsuit filed against The News & Observer that resulted in a $6 million verdict against the newspaper.

On April 26, the media coalition filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Raleigh-based newspaper, arguing against a North Carolina Court of Appeals decision that held the N&O must pay $6 million in damages to Beth Desmond, a former forensic firearms examiner for the State Bureau of Investigation. Desmond filed the lawsuit against the N&O and its reporter Mandy Locke over articles about the bureau’s work that discussed her ballistics analysis and testimony in a 2006 murder trial.

Desmond is a public official, meaning she must prove the newspaper acted with “actual malice” when it published the story to prevail in a defamation case. The coalition argues that the appeals court erred when it affirmed the trial court’s holding that Desmond had proven actual malice.

The Court of Appeals “misinterpreted the actual malice standard by not requiring Desmond to prove that the Newspaper Defendants knew the published statements were false or had serious doubts about their veracity,” the coalition stated in its brief.

The coalition further argued that the ruling threatens to “chill the fundamental public interest in ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ debate about the conduct of public officials.”

“Journalists reporting on controversies and disputes within forensic science fosters public awareness of the criminal justice system,” the coalition argued. “Fear of unwarranted defamation liability will make the news media less likely to report on these complicated issues, and the public will therefore lose the benefit of valuable information about our law enforcement and criminal justice systems.”

The Reporters Committee previously filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the N&O when the case was before the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and in support of the N&O’s petition for discretionary review before the North Carolina Supreme Court. Read the latest brief here.

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