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Supreme Court dismisses police officer’s defamation lawsuit

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         NEW JERSEY         Libel    

Supreme Court dismisses police officer’s defamation lawsuit

  • A police officer in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., failed to prove that a local resident knowingly defamed him in a homemade newsletter that charged the officer with perjury.

May 13, 2004 — A New Jersey police officer’s defamation suit against the publisher of a newsletter was dismissed Tuesday when the state Supreme Court ruled that his claim did not meet the required legal standard of proof.

Writing for an unanimous court, Justice John E. Wallace held that the officer, as a public official, failed to prove a local resident acted with actual malice when he wrote and distributed a newsletter about their dispute. Actual malice is defined as knowing or reckless disregard for the truth of a statement.

“Actual malice has nothing to do with hostility or ill will,” Wallace wrote. “Rather, it concerns a publisher’s state of knowledge of the falsity of what he published, not at all upon his motivation for publishing it.”

Officer Dennis DeAngelis of the Woodcliff Lake Police Department filed the lawsuit after James Hill accused him of perjury in a homemade April 2001 newsletter that was mailed to every home in town. The dispute between the two men arose over Hill’s efforts in 1999 to extend a temporary parking waiver to keep his trailer in front of his home.

Hill secretly tape recorded a conversation with DeAngelis about the matter; New Jersey’s wiretapping laws require only the consent of one party to a conversation.

After receiving several parking tickets, Hill represented himself in municipal court and called DeAngelis as a witness. Hill claimed that DeAngelis’s testimony was contradicted by what he said during the taped conversation.

When Hill’s perjury claims were ignored by the county prosecutor and attorney general, he published and distributed a newsletter chronicling the entire incident.

DeAngelis proceeded to file various claims against Hill, including claims of defamation and emotional distress. The trial court dismissed DeAngelis’s claims of harassment and distress, but refused to dismiss the remaining claims. It held that the newsletter was not simply “opinion,” as Hill argued, and that the facts in the case were in dispute.

The Supreme Court disagreed, pointing to the higher standard of proof required of public officials suing for defamation.

“No reasonable fact finder could find by clear and convincing evidence that defendant knew his publication was false or that he published the newsletter with reckless disregard for the truth,” the court held.

(DeAngelis v. Hill; Counsel: John C. Connell, Archer & Greiner, Haddonfield, N.J.) KM


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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