Truth Not Always a Defense?

A recent Boston Globe story describes the possible libel law ramifications of a recent First Circuit ruling – Noonan v. Staples, Inc:

Journalists who believe truth is the ultimate defense against libel suits fear that a federal appeals court has created a dangerous exception that could chill news reporting.

The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled recently that a former salesman at Staples can sue the company for libel after a vice president sent an e-mail to about 1,500 employees saying the salesman had been fired for violations of company procedures regarding expenses reimbursements.

Although the decision did not involve a news outlet, it has alarmed journalists, bloggers, and media law specialists, who worry that it could discourage news organizations from pursuing true stories that might cast subjects in a bad light.

What is the concern?

The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show “actual malice” by the person publishing the statement.

In ordinary discussions of First Amendment law, “actual malice” refers to the standard established in the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

In that context, it means a plaintiff who is a public figure can win a libel suit only after proving that a journalist knew a published statement was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, “actual malice” means “malevolent intent or ill will,” said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he “singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him,” the court wrote.

…Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University, said the 1902 Massachusetts law struck him as “an anachronism from a more censorious age” when some states passed laws that sought to trump the First Amendment.

“There is every reason to be fearful that this kind of ruling could very well be damaging, because it puts a higher value on other things than it does on the truth,” he said.

There is a strange RI twist to this MA story as well. Both the Volokh Conspiracy and Edward Fitzpatrick note that there is a Rhode Island Supreme Court case that found a defendant liable for “essentially true” statements.  Here’s Fitzpatrick:

First Amendment lawyer Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr., who often represents The Journal, said the 1st Circuit ruling is more of a concern for private communications than for the media. But he said it’s not just a concern for Massachusetts, because Rhode Island has a similar law and has seen a similar ruling. He cited a 1995 Rhode Island Supreme Court case in which a woman sued her former husband for calling her a “whore” in front of 50 to 75 people at Twin Oaks restaurant in Cranston. The court said the woman was entitled to $5,000 in compensatory damages because although his statement was “essentially true,” the former husband had acted “out of spite and ill will.”

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One response to “Truth Not Always a Defense?

  1. The Rhode Island case, fyi, is Johnson v. Johnson, 654 A.2d 1212 (R.I. 1995).

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