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Officers must be treated as public officials, court finds

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         MASSACHUSETTS         Libel         Jul 3, 2000    

Officers must be treated as public officials, court finds

  • Police officers who bring defamation suits in Massachusetts are public officials and thus have to prove actual malice to prevail, the state’s high court ruled in June.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on June 20 overturned a defamation verdict because it was based on a jury instruction that said a police officer was a private figure.

The since-resigned state trooper, William Rotkiewicz Jr., sued Walter Sadowsky Jr. for making accusations about illegal activities to the trooper’s superiors in 1991.

Because the Franklin County Superior Court jury was told to treat the police officer as a private citizen instead of a public official, actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth — did not have to be proven.

In 1994 the jury awarded the officer $81,000 for the defamation claim and $75,000 for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Sadowsky appealed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. The high court reversed the verdict, finding that the “broad powers vested in police officers and the great potential for abuse of those powers” warranted the higher standard of proof. The court specified that “even patrol-level police officers such as the plaintiff” are public officials for purposes of defamation suits.

The Supreme Judicial Court sent the case back to the trial court to determine if actual malice was present.

(Rotkiewicz v. Sadowsky, Media Counsel: Wendy Sibbison, Greenfield) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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