Q: What do the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Herald agree on? A: The dangerous precedent that would be set if a ruling that undermines truth as a defense in libel cases is allowed to stand.
Earlier this week, according to the Boston Globe’s Jonathan Saltzman, noted First Amendment lawyer Robert Bertsche filed an amicus curiae brief (PDF) asking that the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturn a decision reached recently by a three-judge panel of that court. The brief is signed by a host of media giants, including the New York Times Co. (which owns the Globe), GateHouse Media (which owns more than 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts), ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, Time Inc., WGBH and many, many others.
As I reported in the Guardian on Feb. 17, the decision, written by Judge Juan Torruella, allowed a libel suit to move ahead on the grounds that the offending speech (an e-mail to some 1,500 Staples employees about a sales director who’d been fired for violating the company’s expense-report policies), though true, might be held libelous on the grounds that it was made with “actual malice.”
In making that ruling, Torruella relied on the meaning of malice as it existed in 1902, when the Massachusetts law at issue went into effect — a meaning that Torruella defined as “ill will” or “malevolent intent.” In Times v. Sullivan (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court redefined “actual malice” as a defamatory statement made even though it was known to be false, made with “reckless disregard” as to its truth or falsity.
The Torruella decision applies only to private persons, whereas the Times v. Sullivan and its progeny pertain to public officials and public figures. Nevertheless, in other decisions — most famously Gertz v. Robert Welch (1974) — the Supreme Court made it clear that even a libel suit brought by a private person must be based on a statement that was false and negligently made.
The amicus brief argues that if Torruella’s ruling is allowed to stand, plaintiffs will be able to win libel suits if they are merely able to prove that the defendant was “out to get them.” The brief continues:
In some quarters, it may even have the chilling effect of discouraging reporting and commentary on some of the most pressing issues of the day, such as the internal affairs of businesses coping with severe economic challenges, for fear that such matters might mistakenly be deemed to be of only “private concern.”
This is a case of enormous importance to the beleaguered news media and, more important, to the public, which depends on tough, fair, truthful reporting. Let’s hope the full court does the right thing.