UTAH — The Utah Supreme Court ruled in late March that a newspaper did not defame a mayor when it published an opinion column accusing him of attempting to manipulate the press. The court also ruled that a column’s implication that the mayor reversed his position on an issue to get elected was an opinion protected by the state constitution.
The libel suit arose from several opinion page columns published by a St. George newspaper, the Daily Spectrum, in 1988 about Terry West, the mayor of La Verkin, Utah.
In one piece a columnist wrote that West reversed his opposition to a municipal power system as soon as he was elected mayor. In another column the paper’s managing editor wrote that West repeatedly attempted to manipulate the press.
A Utah district court in St. George dismissed West’s claims arising from these statements in 1989 and 1990. The Utah Court of Appeals in Salt Lake City reversed the district court in May 1992.
In reversing the appeals court, the Utah Supreme Court held with respect to the press manipulation charge that it is not defamatory to accuse a politician of attempting to influence the dissemination of information to the public.
The court held that the change-of-position statement was not actionable because it is not possible to objectively verify why West might have changed his position.
The court added that by running for mayor, West subjected himself to public scrutiny, and that the newspaper’s statements were more likely to be considered opinions rather than facts because they appeared on the editorial page instead of the news section.
(West v. Thomson Newspapers; Media Counsel: Randy Dryer, Salt Lake City)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.