Supreme Court Takes Shield Law From Media, Gives It To Lying Politicians

By declining to hear the appeal of a Pennsylvania publisher last week, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that may allow a newspaper to be held liable for defamation simply for reporting the news.

In 1995, the Daily Local News in West Chester, PA., published an account of borough Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. as “strongly implying” that council president James B. Norton III and Mayor Alan M. Wolfe were “queers and child molesters.” Norton and Wolfe denied the charges and filed suit against Glenn for defamation. The suit also named the Daily Local who had merely reported factually that the exchange took place and included Norton’s and Wolfe’s denials.

After finding that Glenn had defamed Norton and Wolfe and awarding them damages, the jury found that the Daily Local was not liable, partly due to the doctrine of neutral reportage. That doctrine permits recounting a public figure’s comments as long as they are reported neutrally and accurately. In other words, if the Mayor calls the Governor a lush, the newspaper can report what the Mayor said without being responsible for his veracity. However, the jury’s verdict with regard to the paper was reversed on appeal and the lawsuit against it reinstated. Now the paper must defend itself on the grounds that it had exercised no actual malice.

The neutral reportage privilege is a perfectly reasonable first amendment protection for the media when it is informing the public about events that actually occur. The public should have the right to assess facts that are fairly presented. They also should have the right to be fully informed about public figures who make outrageous and untruthful public statements. The appellate court, in finding that the neutral reportage privilege does not exist in Pennsylvania or federal law, puts the press in the position of being unable to report events in the news if the events happen to contain potentially defamatory charges. These events, or as I like to call them, political campaigns, would have to forego almost all media coverage. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing after all.

As a consequence of the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case, we are left with the following scenario from the example above: The press could not report what the Mayor said without first ascertaining that the Governor is, indeed, a lush. If the Governor is a teetotaler, the press could not report the exchange at all without exposing it self to a possible lawsuit. The public would then never hear from the press how the Mayor made an ass of himself. So much for a free press.