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Supreme Court reaffirms state "single publication" rule

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Libel    

Supreme Court reaffirms state “single publication” rule

  • California’s high court held that the statute of limitations for bringing a libel lawsuit begins to toll on the first general publication of the work, not when a plaintiff happens to read the defamatory remark.

Jan. 9, 2004 — The Supreme Court of California last month reaffirmed the state’s “single publication” rule, which requires libel plaintiffs to bring their lawsuits within one year from the time of initial publication of the work in question.

The case arose out of the 1994-95 criminal prosecution of former football star O.J. Simpson, who was indicted — and found not guilty — in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Jill Shively, a witness for the prosecution in the grand jury proceedings against Simpson, brought a libel lawsuit on Oct. 22, 1997, against several individuals — including Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Peter Bozanich, the author of a book about the case, and his publisher, William Morrow & Co.

Shively alleged that the defendants called her a “felony probationer,” indicating that she was on probation for committing a crime, on three separate occasions — the first two in private conversations, and the third when the statement was published in Bozanich’s book, “A Problem of Evidence,” Oct. 21, 1996. Shively said she was unaware the statements were made until she read the book, one day after the one-year statute of limitations expired.

The trial court dismissed the case, but in December 2000 an appellate court held that the statute does not begin until a plaintiff learns of the libel.

The Supreme Court disagreed, however, saying the single publication rule applied to the book’s statement and that “the statute of limitations ran from the date the book was first generally distributed to the public, regardless of the date on which plaintiff actually learned of the existence of the book and read its contents.” The court’s opinion was released Dec. 22.

The Court further explained that the single publication rule was created to solve problems with an early common law rule, which viewed every sale of a printed material as a new publication subject to a new statute of limitations time line.

The court concluded that the “delayed discovery” rule adopted by the appellate court would expose “publishers and authors to potential liability during the entire period in which a single copy of a book or newspaper might exist and fall into the hands of the subject of a defamatory remark.”

(Shively v. Bozanich; Media Counsel: Gregory Charles Hill, Hill & Hill, Ventura, Calif.) KM

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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