WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday threw out former Mobil Corp. President William P. Tavoulareas' libel suit against the Washington Post, ending an eight-year fight that called into question the boundaries of investigative reporting.
The court, without comment or dissent, let stand a 7-1 appeals court ruling last year that said a 1979 article reporting that Tavoulareas had "set up" his son in a shipping company that did business with Mobil was "substantially true" and was not libelous.
A federal court jury found in 1982 that the Post and reporter Patrick E. Tyler had libeled Tavoulareas and awarded him $2.05 million. The trial judge overruled the jury, but he was later overruled 2 to 1 by a three-judge appeals court panel. Last March, the full appeals court overturned that ruling.
The original decision by the three-judge appeals panel said that a newspaper's reputation for investigative stories, in itself, could be evidence of "a motive" for publishing a "knowing or reckless falsehood," prompting fears among press lawyers that it would discourage investigative reporting. Senior Judge George E. MacKinnon wrote the opinion and was joined by then-Judge Antonin Scalia. Scalia, now on the Supreme Court, did not participate in Monday's action.