The takeaway from the Herald libel verdict

PyleBy Jeffrey J. Pyle

What should we take away from Wednesday’s $563,000 jury verdict against the Boston Herald? As a lawyer who represents newspapers, magazines and broadcasters, I have a few thoughts.

Much of the attention on the case has focused on the provocative words “sexual acts.” That’s how the Herald described what happened between Marinova and her then-boyfriend, inmate Darrell Jones, in the visitor’s room of the Old Colony Prison in Bridgewater in November 2008. The Herald relied on a prison disciplinary report, but failed to mention that the report alleged only that Jones had kissed Marinova and touched her knee. Marinova’s lawyers argued that “sexual acts” means sexual intercourse, and thus the “gist” of the article was false and defamatory. The jury apparently agreed.

But if the only problem with this story had been the explosive description of the conduct as “sexual acts,” this case probably would never have made it to a jury. That is because the prison disciplinary report did, in fact, charge Jones with engaging in “sexual acts” with Marinova. The Herald put quotes around those words and cited the disciplinary report. So why wasn’t the Herald protected under the fair report privilege?

The fair report privilege, of course, is the age-old legal protection that allows the media to report on official proceedings without being held liable for fairly and accurately describing them. It’s an exception to the rule that a “republisher” of a libel (the press) is just as guilty as the original publisher (the false accuser). However, the privilege only applies to official government proceedings or statements, and any description of a proceeding must be fair and accurate.

The Supreme Judicial Court applied this rule in Howell v. Enterprise Publishing Co., where a public employee was fired for having inappropriately explicit images on his work computer. He sued the Enterprise for describing the images as “pornography” and “porn” — words he said were so exaggerated as to be inaccurate. However, a formal charging document against Howell described the images as “photographs and cartoon-style pictures of a pornographic nature.”

The court held that “[w]hether the images were pornographic or not,” the fair report privilege applied because “it was not substantially inaccurate or unfair” of the Enterprise “to report that the official accusation leveled against Howell was that the images were ‘pornographic.’” In other words, even if a reasonable person wouldn’t have considered the images “pornography,” the fair report privilege allowed the Enterprise to report that the town had charged him with possessing “pornography,” and thus the report wasn’t unfair or inaccurate.

By contrast, in Marinova, the jury heard a litany of ways in which the Herald failed to fairly and accurately describe the prison disciplinary report beyond the mere use of the words “sexual acts.” The article said that Jones was “cited” for “sexual acts” with Marinova, but failed to mention that a hearing officer had dismissed the charge, finding that the conduct did not, in fact, constitute “sexual acts.” A report is not fair, the SJC has ruled, if it is “edited and deleted as to misrepresent the proceeding and thus be misleading.” Second, the article suggested that Marinova herself had been “bagged” and “written up” for the acts. She was never charged with anything. In that sense, Marinova had a good argument that the report was inaccurate — that it did not convey a “substantially correct account of the proceedings,” in the SJC’s words. Third, the article said that Rep. Gloria Fox was under scrutiny for “sneaking” Marinova into the prison, even though Marinova, according to her lawyers, had been cleared to visit the prison just two days earlier. The jury found all these statements to be false and defamatory, and rejected the Herald’s argument that its article fairly and accurately described the disciplinary report.

The takeaway for journalists is pretty clear: when you’re reporting on official documents or proceedings, feel free to quote even their most salacious allegations. But, don’t ignore important elements of those proceedings, like a dismissal, or the fact that only one and not two people were charged. When you do, and the article hurts someone’s reputation, it’s easy for even a public figure to win a libel suit. The jury here found not only that the Herald’s reporter was negligent, but that she published the statements with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.

Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner at the Boston law firm of Prince Lobel Tye and a trial lawyer specializing in First Amendment and media law.

4 thoughts on “The takeaway from the Herald libel verdict

  1. Justin Graeber

    If Pyle’s summation here is accurate, this is not going to end well for the Herald. When it comes to legal matter my inclination is to give journalists a LOT of wiggle room, especially when it comes to writing about public figures. But this is about the worst example I’ve ever seen of “reckless disregard” for the truth.

    One thing I’m curious about — why such a firm denial by the Herald? Is that just a legal strategy or do you think they truly believe they got the story right?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Justin: Just a guess, and I could easily be wrong given that I didn’t cover the case. But I assume the Herald thinks the judge got the fair report aspect of it wrong.

      1. Justin Graeber

        That makes sense. From a strictly legal perspective, I worry about pegging a libel decision to the fact that the Herald report didn’t include the ultimate resolution of the case. But the stuff about the “sexual acts” when the report clearly defined what those were … I dunno. I think it’s a sloppy story, but my gut instinct is that the “reckless disregard for the truth” bar should be very, very high. But them more I read about this case, the more I think the Herald pole vaulted over that standard.

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