Judge upholds fair-report privilege in Herald case

Sounds like musician Tom Scholz is really reaching as he pursues his libel suit against the Boston Herald.

Scholz, as you may know, claims that the Herald’s “Inside Track” gossip column libeled him by reporting in 2007 that Micki Delp had said Scholz bore some responsibility for the suicide of her ex-husband, Brad Delp. Scholz was the founder and leader of the band Boston, and Delp was the lead singer.

Apparently Scholz also charged that the Herald libeled him by reproducing parts of those articles in reporting on his lawsuit against the paper when he filed it in 2010. One problem: the articles were an official part of the lawsuit.

Which means that the Herald had every right to report on the contents of those 2007 articles accurately, even if they ultimately are proved to be libelous. Which means, too, that Superior Court Judge John Cratsley dismissed Scholz’s complaint about the 2010 articles yesterday. As the nationally renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told the Herald:

It’s a complete victory based on deeply rooted principles of English and American law. It’s a privilege of the press to publish a fair account of just about anything that happens in court. Without that right, the public would never know what goes on in court.

The fair-report privilege is a vital protection for the press. Because of the privilege, for instance, a reporter may write about what takes place at a city council meeting without having to worry whether someone might have said something libelous.

As Abrams (and Cratsley) notes, court proceedings are covered by the privilege as well. I still recall reporting on a rather outrageous allegation someone had told me he’d included in a lawsuit he’d filed. The Boston Phoenix’s lawyer flagged it before publication. I double-checked, showed my editor the language in the lawsuit and the lawyer told us to go ahead and publish.

The Herald is still at risk over its 2007 reports. Cratsley recently dismissed Scholz’s suit against Micki Delp, ruling that the statements at issue were solely the Herald’s responsibility. Yesterday’s ruling, though, was a victory not just for the Herald, but for the First Amendment — and all of us.

The Boston Globe covers yesterday’s ruling here. Earlier coverage of the Scholz lawsuit here.