‘Rational interpretation’ of ambiguous ethics letters negates actual malice
WISCONSIN–A Milwaukee Journal article was a rational interpretation of ambiguous letters sent to an insurance commissioner by the state Ethics Board and therefore the paper did not act with actual malice — knowledge that the story was false or with reckless disregard of the truth, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals in Wausau unanimously held in mid-February.
In mid-October 1993, the Journal reported that John Torgerson, the state’s former deputy commissioner of insurance, had been warned twice by the Ethics Board that his co-ownership of a title insurance company presented a conflict of interest and that he should stay out of title insurance regulation. The Journal stated that its own investigation found that Torgerson nevertheless had worked to repeal a rule requiring title insurance companies to disclose their lowest, discounted rates.
Torgerson claimed that the article was defamatory because it falsely reported that the Ethics Board told him to stay out of title insurance regulation and it implied that he helped to change a rule for the purpose of advancing his private business.
The court held that the Journal article was a rational interpretation of the Ethics Board’s correspondence with Torgerson. The court cited a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that actual malice does not exist when a newspaper’s account is a reasonable interpretation of a highly ambiguous government source, even though the newspaper’s story may not convey the “true” meaning intended by the government source.
The Ethics Board letters on which the Journal’s story was based were “abundantly ambiguous,” the court stated. The court found that the letters, read in their entirety and considered along with other comments by the Ethics Board, could be reasonably interpreted to mean that Torgerson should stay out of title insurance regulation.
The court noted that the Ethics Board’s legal counsel was quoted in the article as saying he was “disappointed to learn that Torgerson had been involved in changing the rules governing title insurance regulation.” The court found that the statement strongly supported the Journal’s interpretation of the letters.
The court also rejected Torgerson’s argument that the reporter’s destruction of his interview notes should be considered evidence of actual malice. The court found that the notes were not critical to the libel case. “The remote possibility that the reporter would have written in his interview notes that he entertained serious doubts about the truth of his article is far too speculative,” the court said.
Because the court held that Torgerson failed to prove actual malice, it did not reach the issue of whether or not the story was actually false. (Torgerson v. Journal Sentinel, Inc.; Media Counsel: Brady C. Williamson, Robert J. Dreps, Madison)