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U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear 'neutral reportage,' Virginia police records cases

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Libel         March 29, 2005    

U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear ‘neutral reportage,’ Virginia police records cases

  • The justices let stand a Pennsylvania ruling that publication of defamatory comments made by public officials is not protected and a Virginia ruling that decades-old records in a rape and murder case must be released.

March 29, 2005 — A Pennsylvania high court ruling that the media are not protected when they publish defamatory statements made by public officials will stand as will a federal appellate court ruling that Virginia police officials must unseal files from a murder investigation that wrongly sent a man to death row, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Monday.

In turning away Troy Publishing Co. v. Norton, the nation’s highest court declined to consider whether there is a First Amendment-based privilege that shields the media from liability when they accurately and objectively report a defamatory accusation by one public official against another — even if they doubt the truthfulness of the charge.

The case grew from a 1995 article in Pennsylvania’s West Chester Daily Local News about infighting among members of Parkesburg Borough Council. The paper reported that Councilman William T. Glenn Sr., who was up for re-election, issued a written statement accusing Council President James B. Norton and Parkesburg Mayor Alan M. Wolfe of being “queers and child molesters.”

The trial court ruled that reporter Tom Kennedy, his editor and publisher were not liable because they were protected by a “neutral reportage” privilege. That ruling was reversed on appeal to an intermediate appellate court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court has never tackled the issue head on. A coalition of media organizations, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court also declined to hear a case involving a federal court order to unseal documents in the case of Earl Washington Jr. who was wrongly sent to Virginia’s death row for nearly a decade for the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Williams in Culpeper, Va.

In November, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) affirmed U.S. District Judge Norma K. Moon’s order that 10 of 14 documents in Washington’s Virginia State Police investigation file be unsealed. The entire appellate court rejected a request from Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore to review the decision. He had argued that releasing the documents could compromise an “active and ongoing” investigation into Williams’ murder.

Kilgore asked U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is the justice assigned to hear emergency appeals from the Fourth Circuit, to stay the release pending appeals. He declined in November, and Monday the entire court declined to hear the appeal.

A federal court, meanwhile, is considering whether to release the remaining four documents sought by The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other media organizations.

(Troy Publishing Co. v. Norton v. Norton, Media Counsel: Lee Levine, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Washington, D.C.; Virginia Dept. of State Police v. The Washington Post, Media Counsel: John Kester, Williams & Connolly, Washington, D.C.)KM

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© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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