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Justices Refuse to Shield Reports of False Charges

The Supreme Court lets stand a ruling that a newspaper's truthful coverage isn't protected.

March 29, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Monday to shield the news media from being sued for accurately reporting a politician's false charges against a rival.

Instead, the justices let stand a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that a newspaper can be forced to pay damages for having reported that a city councilman called the mayor and the council president "liars," "queers" and "child molesters."

The case turned on whether the 1st Amendment's protection of the freedom of the press includes a "neutral reporting privilege." Most judges around the nation have said the press does not enjoy this privilege.

Lawyers for more than two dozen of the nation's largest press organizations, including Tribune Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times, had urged the court to take up the Pennsylvania case and to rule that truthful news reports on public figures deserved to be shielded.

They said politicians have been hurling false and damaging charges at their rivals throughout American history. The press cannot do its duty to inform the public if it is not free to report what public figures say, they argued.

But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the press has never "enjoyed a blanket immunity" from being sued over stories that print falsehoods that damage a person's reputation. The law "has placed a burden (albeit a minimal one) on the media to refrain from publishing reports that they know to be false," the Pennsylvania court said.

The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to take up the case sets no legal precedent. However, one lawyer involved in the dispute said the court's action "signals the demise of the neutral reporting privilege."

The case that reached the high court began 10 years ago when the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., printed a story titled "Slurs, Insults Drag Town Into Controversy." It reported that the city council in nearby Parkesburg had been torn apart by shouting matches and fistfights. The most outspoken councilman was William T. Glenn Sr.

In comments during a meeting and in an interview with a news reporter, Glenn referred to Mayor Alan Wolfe and Councilman James Norton as "liars" and a "bunch of draft dodgers." He also strongly suggested that they were homosexuals who had put themselves "in a position that gave them an opportunity to have access to children."

When asked to respond, Norton was quoted as saying: "If Mr. Glenn has made comments as bizarre as that, then I feel very sad for him, and I hope he can get the help he needs."

Later, the mayor and the councilman who were the targets of the charges sued both Glenn and the Daily Local News.

In 2000, a trial judge dropped the newspaper from the case and ruled that the councilman had defamed his two colleagues. Glenn was ordered to pay them $17,500 in damages.

Their lawyers appealed the judge's decision to drop the newspaper, and in October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the libel lawsuit against the reporter, his editor and Troy Publishing Co., which owns the paper. That part of the case has not yet been tried.

The state Supreme Court said the newspaper could invoke the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark libel decision in New York Times vs. Sullivan. It said public figures who sue the news media alleging that they were damaged by false charges must prove that the news organizations displayed a "reckless disregard" for the truth.

That standard will not help the newspaper in this case, press lawyers said. Though the news report was truthful, the councilman's allegations were false.

In their appeal to the high court, lawyers for the paper said news organizations should be allowed to report what public figures say, regardless of whether it is true or false.

Otherwise, they said, for example, the press could not have reported last year on the charges lodged against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth because Kerry's supporters said their charges were false.

But noted Philadelphia lawyer Richard Sprague, who represented the mayor and the councilman, said the high court should not "grant a license to knowingly publish defamatory falsehoods." In the end, the Supreme Court dismissed the case of Troy Publishing vs. Norton without comment.

In a second case, the justices refused to revive part of an Idaho law that requires teenage girls to get a parent's consent before having an abortion. The law made an exception for a "sudden" medical emergency that called for immediate action.

But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down that part of the law on the grounds that its focus on "sudden" medical complications might unduly limit doctors. The justices turned away an appeal by the state's attorney general in Wasden vs. Planned Parenthood.

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