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State high court rejects libel suit over political advertisment

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         KENTUCKY         Libel         Oct 29, 1999    

State high court rejects libel suit over political advertisment

  • A former mayor’s libel lawsuit over negative comments about his conduct in office failed due to an inability to prove a newspaper had doubts about the truth of the comments.

In late October, a majority of the state Supreme Court in Frankfort threw out a former Kentucky mayor’s libel suit against a daily newspaper, noting that political discussion regarding the conduct of public officials is at the pinnacle of protected speech.

While Troy Welch was running for re-election for mayor in 1993, two supporters of opponent Ben Hickman ran a full-page advertisement in The Daily News of Middlesboro that contained unflattering headlines regarding Welch and negative comments about his conduct and administration. The advertisement ran on the Saturday and Monday before the election.

In rejecting Welch’s libel claim over the advertisement, the state’s highest court explained that a public figure like Welch would have to prove actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — to succeed in his libel claim. The court subsequently rejected the claim because it found the evidence before it was “devoid of any hint” that the newspaper “entertained any doubts” about the truth of the published statements.

“An indispensable principle of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is that ‘debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,’ ” Chief Justice Joseph Lambert wrote for the court.

Justices William Cooper and William Graves, however, dissented and argued that there was sufficient evidence that the truth was disregarded because the newspaper should have known that political opponents have motivation to lie about one another. The dissenting justices also noted that the published statement that Welch was “successful in running off 62 separate council members in disgust” could not have been true since there had not been 62 city council members during Welch’s administration. In addition, they pointed out that the advertisement was accepted after the normal cut-off date for election advertisements.

Cooper wrote, “we essentially hold that the reputation of a public official is fair game for those who stand to benefit from its destruction and that one who seeks or accepts public office thereby forfeits the right to legal redress for injuries inflicted by malicious liars.”

Following the publication of the advertisement in The Daily News, Welch lost the race for mayor of Middlesboro. He subsequently filed suit against the newspaper, alleging that the advertisement injured his reputation and caused him to lose the election.

A state trial court also had held that the former Middlesboro mayor could not prove the newspaper acted with actual malice.

(Welch v. American Publishing Co. of Kentucky; Media Counsel: Jon L. Fleischaker, Louisville)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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