A wise local reporter recently told me to stop wishing for Herald publisher Pat Purcell to appeal the $2.1 million libel verdict against his paper to the U.S. Supreme Court. I see his point — given the court’s recent outrageous ruling on pay equity, it’s hard to imagine (OK, it’s easy to imagine) what Roberts, Alito, Scalia et al. might do to Times v. Sullivan, the 1964 ruling that makes it difficult for public officials to win libel suits.
Perhaps this is going to end with a whimper. The Globe reports today that the state’s Supreme Judicial Court has declined to revisit its recent decision upholding the 2005 libel verdict in favor of Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy, who’d claimed the Herald had falsely portrayed him as making demeaning statements about a 14-year-old rape victim — specifically, that he had said, “Tell her to get over it” during a meeting with lawyers.
Apparently there’s a brief in the Herald, too, but right now the paper’s Web site is down.
Not to relive this endlessly, but Times v. Sullivan and its progeny required Murphy to show that Herald staffer Dave Wedge knew or strongly suspected he was reporting false information. The jury and the SJC bought it, but I still don’t. Even though Wedge’s reporting was sensationalistic and marred by several key errors, I don’t think he ever believed he was doing anything other than passing along the honest views of his sources in the Bristol County district attorney’s office.
In Massachusetts, at least, Times v. Sullivan no longer provides journalists with the near-absolute protection they’d had to report fearlessly about public officials. Some may say that’s a good thing. I certainly don’t.