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Reporting a rumor does not require investigating its truth

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  1. Libel and Privacy
Newspaper reports about a rumor regarding a local city councilman’s personal relationship with a woman who received a “sweetheart deal”…

Newspaper reports about a rumor regarding a local city councilman’s personal relationship with a woman who received a “sweetheart deal” to perform a project for the city were not defamatory, an Alabama appellate court recently held.

The opinion in Little v. Consolidated Publishing Co. reiterates the rule that a failure to investigate the truth of rumors or other statements does not prove they were published with knowledge of or reckless disregard for their falsity, a key element of a libel suit regarding a report about a public official’s government duties. Therefore, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Benjamin Little’s defamation claim against The Aniston Star.

The court also upheld the dismissal of Little’s emotional distress claim against the paper for his lack of evidence of conduct sufficiently outrageous to support this cause of action, which Alabama courts have limited to only a few factual situations.

Little sued the paper’s publisher and a reporter after a news story and editorial suggested that Little orchestrated a plan to hire Yolanda Jackson, a human resources consultant, to perform an audit of the city’s human resources department. The paper relied on comments by newly elected councilman John Spain, a known rival of Little’s on the council, for the stories.

The reporter authored an article based on remarks Spain made at a public city council meeting in February 2009 and comments he provided in a post-meeting interview. The story included Spain’s complaint that the audit was worthless and his intent to investigate the matter. It also included Spain’s suggestion that there was “a buzz in the city that Little had or has a personal relationship with Jackson and that’s why he pushed for her hiring last year.”

The article also quoted Spain as saying the rumor would be unfair to Little if it were untrue and contained a direct denial by Little that he had any personal relationship with Jackson.

In response to Little’s suit, the reporter stated in an affidavit that she “was simply reporting the words of Spain as told to her as part of her job as a reporter, which included covering the meetings of the city council.”

Under U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence establishing the level of fault that must be proven by public officials suing for defamation over statements relating to the performance of their public duties, the journalist, who merely reported a public official's comments about the existence of the rumor, was not obligated to investigate its truth or falsity, the newspaper argued.

The trial court agreed, as did the appellate court, which relied on the Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in St. Amant v. Thompson that the level of fault a plaintiff like Little must prove is shown only if the reporter “in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.”

“[F]ailing to investigate the truth behind Spain’s assertions as to why he was requesting an investigation into the audit in the manner Little believed should have been done before the article was published is insufficient to demonstrate that [the reporter] acted with reckless disregard for the truth,” the Alabama court ruled.

Little said he plans to ask the Alabama Supreme Court to review the case.