The most surprising decision the Supreme Court rendered last week was not about gender discrimination in high school sports or age discrimination, the two most widely reported cases. The justices' most notable and dismaying action was their one-line refusal to take up a case hitting at the core of 1st Amendment freedoms.
The case began a decade ago. A staffer for the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., reported on a stormy City Council meeting in nearby Parkesburg that disintegrated into name-calling outside the council chambers. The issue isn't whether Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. called the mayor and another city councilman "liars," "queers" and "child molesters" or whether the newspaper's reporter accurately reported Glenn's raw charges.
The targets of the vitriol sued for damages by claiming that because Glenn's charges were false, the newspaper's story repeating them constituted defamation. Last October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed, reinstating a libel lawsuit against the newspaper reporter, his editor and the publishing company.
Here's the problem with the Pennsylvania decision: "Neutral reportage" (as the courts have called it) on public officials and prominent figures has been an essential function of the American press since before the United States itself existed. Sometimes the accusations in those reports are proved false -- such as Thomas Paine's 1796 charge that presidential candidate John Adams was a "treasonable" monarchist or the Rev. Jerry Falwell's 1994 claim that President Clinton was addicted to cocaine. Through this nation's history, unfettered reporting has enabled citizens to sort truth from tale, choose their leaders and press their government to act.
In ordering the lower court libel trial to go forward against the newspaper, the Pennsylvania justices said the Daily Local News could not shield itself with the "neutral reportage privilege" but could cite a 1964 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, New York Times vs. Sullivan, that requires plaintiffs to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a newspaper knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth published a falsehood.
Still, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear the Daily Local News case means the Pennsylvania court's decision stands, clearing the way for the trial against the West Chester paper and its staff.
California law is somewhat more protective of reporters' right to accurately report what public figures say.
Technically, the Pennsylvania case would not apply elsewhere, but in being allowed to continue, it is likely to embolden other would-be plaintiffs in other states.
The Pennsylvania case gave the U.S. Supreme Court an important opportunity to underscore a fundamental principle. Unfortunately, the justices took a pass.