Geoff Edgers’ story in Sunday’s Boston Globe on the troubled life of Boston singer Brad Delp raises some interesting questions about libel law. The most important is this: If a newspaper publishes a report that is accurate, what obligation does it have to verify that it is also true?
Following Delp’s suicide in 2007, the Boston Herald’s Inside Track reporters, Laura Raposa and Gayle Fee, wrote that Delp’s ex-wife, Micki Delp, blamed Delp’s death on his troubled relationship with Tom Scholz, Boston’s founder and leader. According to court documents examined by Edgers, the Tracksters also relied on e-mails from Micki Delp’s sister Connie Goudreau. (Here’s some more background on the case and its principals.)
Scholz, in turn, sued Micki Delp and Connie Goudreau for defamation, and in 2010 filed a libel suit against the Herald as well, charging that the Herald should have known Micki Delp had a personal vendetta against Scholz. Goudreau has settled with Scholz, but the other cases remain unresolved.
Edgers presents powerful evidence that Delp’s suicide should not be blamed on Scholz. Delp had suffered from depression for years, and his relationship with his fiancée, Pamela Sullivan, was troubled. Still, who knows what could drive a person to suicide?
In simple terms, the legal question is whether the Herald was obliged to go beyond accurately reporting what Micki Delp and Goudreau were telling its reporters and determine whether their accusations against Scholz were actually true. Was Delp as upset with Scholz as his ex-wife and sister-in-law claimed? Did that so traumatize Delp that it could have contributed to his suicidal state of mind?
A verdict against the Herald would be very bad news for the press. Because Scholz is a public figure, he would have to prove that the Herald knew or strongly suspected that its reporting was false. Even if Fee and/or Raposa knew Micki Delp had it in for Scholz, it doesn’t necessary follow that they thought she was lying.
In the relevant Supreme Court case, Harte-Hanks Communications v. Connaughton (1989), the court found in favor of a public official who’d been maligned after it was proven (among other things) that the managing editor of the local newspaper literally ordered reporters not to interview a source or examine documents that might contradict the story she wanted to publish.
That is not remotely what’s at issue in the Scholz case. Based on Edgers’ article, it seems to me that not only did Fee and Raposa not doubt they’d gotten the story right, but that Scholz would have a very difficult time proving they’d gotten it wrong in any definitive way.
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