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An Important Victory

March 19, 1987

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.

On appeal, the three-judge panel overturned Gasch and reinstated the jury's verdict. Judge George E. MacKinnon, joined by Scalia, held that there was actual malice in a publication's history of "hard-hitting investigative stories." If left standing, this decision could have crippled one of the press' most important social functions. It would have forced many publications to shy from digging into things, from finding out, from criticizing, and the public would have been the loser.

The full appeals court put the case right. "We agree with the Post that the First Amendment prohibits penalizing the press for encouraging its reporters to expose wrongdoing," the seven-judge majority said. MacKinnon, the earlier decision's author, was the only judge who voted to sustain it.

Further, in a slap at Gasch's original slap at the Post, the majority found that the Post article had been substantially accurate in the first place. "The record abounds with uncontradicted evidence of nepotism in favor of Peter," the judges said.

This opinion, written by Judges Kenneth W. Starr and J. Skelly Wright, recognizes the broad public interest in a free press, and it stands in the finest tradition of judicial support for one of this country's basic freedoms. It puts the lie to the smug campaign by Tavoulareas and other Mobil executives to tighten libel laws in violation of the Constitution. The Post, the press and the public have won an important victory.

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