By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

NHPR case illustrates the limits of actual malice

U.S. Supreme Court. Photo (cc) by Kjetil Ree

The harassment endured by Lauren Chooljian, a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio, is frightening and horrifying. David Enrich of The New York Times reported last week (free link) that Chooljian, her parents and her editor have been subjected to vandalism and threats after she reported on sexual misconduct allegations against Eric Spofford, who founded the state’s largest network of addiction treatment centers.

Spofford denies having anything to do with the vandalism. But there’s an interesting wrinkle to the case that I want to discuss, and that’s Spofford’s libel suit against Chooljian and NHPR. Because of Spofford’s prominence, he has been designated as a public figure, which means that he must show actual malice (as well as falsity and defamation) in order to win his suit. Actual malice, as you probably know, requires that the plaintiff prove the defendant published the offending material despite knowing or strongly suspecting it was false.

NHPR has been ordered by Judge Daniel St. Hilaire to turn over transcripts of interviews, including with anonymous sources. “Legal experts,” Enrich wrote, “called the ruling unusual and alarming, saying such decisions could make it harder for journalists to investigate potential wrongdoing by public figures.” And Enrich quoted one of those experts, Chad Bowman, as saying it was “‘deeply troubling’ for a judge to force journalists to hand over unpublished materials when the plaintiff hadn’t yet made a viable legal claim.”

The last part of that statement is the key: Spofford has not yet presented the sort of evidence that would suggest he could win if allowed to proceed. St. Hilaire seems to be putting the cart before the horse. But if Spofford does have a viable case, then he’s entitled to gather the evidence he needs to pursue it. Remember, he needs to prove actual malice. That means it’s essential that he be allowed to probe the inner workings of Chooljian’s and NHPR’s reporting and editing processes to see whether they knew what they were broadcasting was false or if they harbored any serious doubts about it.

At one time libel had been regarded as what you might call a no-fault tort. That is, if you could show that you had been defamed with falsehoods, then you would win your case, regardless of the news organization’s motivation. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, however, the Supreme Court ruled that even private individuals would have to prove negligence. With at least two members of the current Supreme Court, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, having suggested they’d like to revisit libel law, it’s worth thinking about whether negligence might be a better standard than actual malice, even for public officials and public figures.

The problem with actual malice has always been that though it makes it extremely difficult for a plaintiff to win a libel suit against the news media, it also gives the plaintiff entree into a news outlet’s private communications. Consider that, in 2005, The Boston Globe lost a libel suit brought by a doctor in the case of Betsy Lehman, a Globe reporter who died after receiving a massive overdose of a chemotherapy drug. In that case, the judge ruled that Dr. Lois Ayash won what turned out to be a $2 million judgment by default after the Globe refused to turn over its confidential sources, as the judge had ordered.

Ayash was entitled to that information, but there was no way the Globe was going to betray its confidential sources. If a negligence standard had been in effect rather than actual malice, then the jury could have determined whether the Globe had acted negligently without probing into its reporting processes.

So, too, with the NHPR case. The problem here, again, is that it’s not clear whether Chooljian reported anything that was false. Truth is almost always considered an absolute defense in a libel case, which is why Judge St. Hilaire seems to be acting prematurely. Nevertheless, the case is a good illustration of why actual malice — defined in the landmark Times v. Sullivan case in 1964 — may have been a mistake, and why negligence may be a more workable standard.

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3 Comments

  1. This really got me thinking and brought me right back to my mornings in our First Amendment Law class back at NEU. There are a lot of heavy implications about what the actual malice standard could mean going forward, especially if the precedent becomes to allow a full probe of reporting and editing processes for even confidential sources.

    Thanks for covering this, Dan!

  2. Jeff Pyle

    Hi Dan,
    I wonder whether your premise here is correct. Even under a negligence standard, the plaintiff would have to show that the defendant’s reporting fell below the standard of care (reasonable and prudent person under the same or similar circumstances). In many cases, to show negligence, the plaintiff will have a good argument that s/he needs all the reporter’s notes and sources, because a negligence standard depends on what information the reporter had and the reliability of the sources of that information. There may be some marginal increase in the invasiveness of the discovery a plaintiff needs to meet the heightened standard of “high degree of awareness of probable falsity” under Sullivan, but I’m confident that overturning Sullivan would not result in greater protection of confidential sources. To the contrary, it would result in many more libel suits, and therefore a great increase in the number of demands to reveal confidential sources.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Jeff, I defer to your judgment. But I wonder if a state might craft a negligence standard that depends entirely on external factors and that prohibits rooting around the inner workings of the newsroom.

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