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Reckless disregard of truth missing in police chief’s libel claim

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         SOUTH CAROLINA         Libel         Jun 22, 2000    

Reckless disregard of truth missing in police chief’s libel claim

  • Failing to investigate an anonymous accusation before publishing it does not necessarily make a case for reckless disregard of the truth, the South Carolina Supreme Court held in June.

The South Carolina Supreme Court decided on June 19 that a former police chief had not established actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth — in his defamation suit against a newspaper’s publication of an anonymous accusation.

The accusation, made by a caller who did not leave his name, ran in the Gaffney Ledger in 1995. “I often wonder if the drug dealers are paying the chief of Blacksburg,” the caller was quoted as saying in the “What’s Your Beef?” column. The since-eliminated column invited readers to call the newspaper and voice their opinions on an answering machine, anonymously or with attribution.

Cody Sossamon, Ledger editor, made the decision to publish the item. Sossamon added a caption over the item, which read: “Are the drug dealers paying?”

Elder argued that Sossamon intended to suggest to the readers that the accusation was true.

Sossamon countered that he thought the information could be true, but never suggested it was true. He testified that he lacked enough evidence to treat the allegation as fact. No news or opinion piece was ever written.

In 1997, A Cherokee County Circuit Court jury awarded Elder $10,000 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages, which the Court of Appeals upheld.

In reversing the decision, the state Supreme Court said actual malice is not established by mere failure to investigate before publishing, even when doing so would have been reasonable.

Holding Elder to the higher standard of proving “actual malice” because he was a public figure, the state’s high court said the evidence was insufficient to show that Sossamon had “purposefully avoided the truth.”

Elder argued that malice could be further inferred by an instance where Sossamon was allegedly rude to Elder’s wife, by Sossamon’s 1991 marijuana-related conviction, and by the fact that the newspaper did not immediately provide a copy of the phone recording.

The court rejected the Court of Appeal’s finding that Sossamon’s alleged rudeness to Elder’s wife was relevant. “It is possible Sossamon is generally a rude person, or was in a bad mood on the day in question, or perhaps has a dislike of Mrs. Elder,” the court said.

One of Elder’s lawyers, Ken Holland of Gaffney, told the Associated Press that Elder might appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Elder v. Gaffney Ledger Inc.; Media Counsel: Jay Bender, Columbia)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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