A Virginia trial court threw out a $3 million libel verdict against a local newspaper, finding that a local school official failed to show that the allegedly defamatory article was published with actual malice.
Phillip Webb, an assistant principal at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va., sued The Virginian-Pilot in 2010 for libel based on the newspaper’s reporting of his son’s 2008 assault on Robert Bristol, the father of a classmate who is a special education student. An article by journalist Louis Hansen published in December 2009 reported that Webb’s son, then a student at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, was not disciplined by the local school system for the assault, allegedly implying that the school official obtained preferential treatment for his son.
Regarding the article, “it is undisputed and [Webb] concedes that the factual statements are true,” Judge Randall D. Smith of the Chesapeake Circuit Court said in an opinion letter. “He believes that it is the implication which is defamatory.” Smith issued the opinion after The Virginian-Pilot asked him to strike the jury's verdict, reached in May.
Smith concluded that the newspaper’s report was not actionable because he determined that Webb is a public official who failed to prove that Hansen published the defamatory statements about him with “actual malice.” That standard, based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark, First Amendment-based ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, “is required to protect the rights of the public and the press to engage in uninhibited debate concerning public issues,” according to the court.
“A media defendant in a defamation action subject to The New York Times actual malice standard cannot be found liable because of its failure to investigate the accuracy of an allegedly defamatory statement unless that defendant has a high degree of awareness of probably falsity,” wrote Smith. “The Court therefore finds [that Webb] has not established actual malice or constitutional malice by clear and convincing evidence.”
Webb’s attorney, Jeremiah A. Denton III, said he disagrees with the court’s finding that his client is a public official who therefore had the burden to prove he was defamed with actual malice. Denton added that Webb intends to appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Defining “actual malice”
· The First Amendment Handbook: Identification — Harm — Fault (public officials vs. private figures)