The libel case of Mobil Oil's William Tavoulareas against the Washington Post has been reversed so many times that we hesitate to take the latest decision as final. But last week's 7-1 opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upholding the Post was so clear and forceful, and the vote so lopsided, that it is hard to see the case coming out any other way. The appeals court understood that much more than a libel case was at stake.
In short, the court vindicated the Post, upholding it on both the facts and the law and striking an important blow for press freedom and, more important, for the public interest. The court repudiated the earlier decision of its three-judge panel, which had held for Tavoulareas by unbelievably finding that a publication's muckraking history could itself be considered actual malice. That 2-1 decision was joined by Antonin Scalia, since elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
To recap the case thus far: In 1979 the Post published an article charging that Tavoulareas, who was then the president of Mobil Oil, had set up his son, Peter, in the shipping business by sending Mobil's shipping his way. Tavoulareas sued. In 1982 a federal jury in Washington awarded him $2 million in damages, but the judge, Oliver Gasch, overturned the verdict on the ground that Tavoulareas had not proved "actual malice," which a public figure must show to win a defamation suit. Gasch did say, however, that the Post's article fell "far short of being a model of fair, unbiased journalism," but that's all that Tavoulareas got.