NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Libel · April 24, 2007
Supreme Court will not hear letter-to-the-editor libel case
April 24, 2007 · The U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it will not review a libel case in which a small Virginia newspaper was ordered to pay $75,000 after publishing a letter from an inmate containing allegations about a local prosecutor.
The owner of the Martinsville, Va.-based Buzz sought the high court’s review to determine if newspapers can be sued for libel for not thoroughly investigating letters to the editor.
The prosecutor, Joan Ziglar, sued the Buzz in 2002, after the paper printed a letter from a local jail inmate, Za’Kee P.J. Tahlib, that said Ziglar was trying to frame him for first-degree murder because Tahlib claimed he had an affair with Ziglar’s sister. Tahlib wrote that Ziglar was encouraging his co-defendant to lie.
The newspaper did not attempt to verify Tahlib’s charges, and noted in its brief to the high court that Ziglar had a policy of not commenting on ongoing cases and that the jail would not allow access to inmates.
A jury awarded Ziglar $75,000 in damages in 2005. The newspaper appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.
In their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, attorneys for the newspaper said, “This case is enormously important because it purports to establish the principle that a newspaper may not print a letter to an editor criticizing a public official on a matter of important public concern unless it is in a position to certify the bona fides of the letter-writer or undertake an independent investigation to determine the facts.”
Attorneys for the newspaper compared this case to the landmark New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, where a newspaper printed an advertisement that made serious charges against police conduct in Alabama without investigating the charges. In that 1964 case, however, the Supreme Court held that under the First Amendment the newspaper was not liable and established the standard that public figures cannot collect libel damages unless they prove a statement was printed with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for whether it was true.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the Buzz case Monday without comment.
(Media Six v. Ziglar, Media Counsel: Conrad M. Shumadine, Wilcox & Savage, P.C., Norfolk, Va.) — MA