Reprint of article held libelous even though original was not
PENNSYLVANIA–A reprint of a Philadelphia Inquirer article that included some new material — an editorial and two cartoons — gave the reprint a different meaning so that it could be found to be libelous even though the original publication was not, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in a 5-1 decision in mid-April.
Former state Supreme Court Justice James McDermott sued the Inquirer after the newspaper published, in May 1983, an article that reported his alleged misconduct. McDermott filed another suit against the newspaper when it published reprints of the article and distributed them to the national conferences of the American Bar Association and the American Judicature Society in February 1984.
The Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, a trial court, ordered a new trial in early February 1993, finding that the jury delivered “fatally inconsistent” verdicts on the two publications. The Supreme Court reversed the order, finding that the publications were “similar but not identical.” The court stated that reprints of the article could be “read through the screen of editorial and cartoon comment.”
In addition, the court noted that the reprints were distributed to a different audience than the original article that was published in the Inquirer.
The article, titled “Above the Law,” reported that McDermott acted with improper favoritism toward the coal industry after receiving contributions from coal companies for his judicial election campaign. The article also alleged that McDermott pressured the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to hire his son.
McDermott died following the 1990 verdict that awarded him $6 million for defamation based only on the reprints of the “Above the Law” article. His estate appealed the trial judge’s order for a new trial.
In dissent, Justice Ralph Cappy stated that it was “untenable and implausible” that the reprints could have a different meaning from the original article. But the justice lambasted the Inquirer for “careless, unprofessional and vicious reporting.”
An attorney for the Inquirer told the Associated Press that the newspaper will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. (McDermott v. Biddle; Media Counsel: William Hangley, Philadelphia)