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

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First Circuit rejects libel appeal

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston has refused to overturn a ruling (PDF) that statements made in matters of private concern may be found libelous even if true.

The court has also declined to accept (PDF) an amicus curiae brief filed by several dozen of the largest and most influential media organizations in the country, citing a conflict of interest that would be created if it were to do so. Apparently one of the judges has a tie to a media organization, which would force a recusal.

No word on what comes next. Is it possible that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on this? The idea that a statement must be defamatory and false in order to be held libelous is so fundamental to our notion of a free press that it’s hard to imagine the ruling will stand, even if it pertains only to Massachusetts, based as it is on a 1902 state law.

From the time I reported on this case for The Guardian, I’ve heard a low buzz suggesting that the ruling may not matter all that much, given that it pertains to private parties — and that, in fact, private persons deserve more protection under the libel laws than public officials and public figures.

My answer to that is that they already do, but that private figures — according to all the libel law that we understand — still have to prove falsehood.

I think the most telling case is that of Gertz v. Robert Welch, a 1974 Supreme Court decision about a libel suit brought by a lawyer who had been falsely defamed by a John Birch Society publication. The court ruled that the lawyer, Elmer Gertz, was a private figure, and would thus not to have to prove “actual malice” as defined by Times v. Sullivan (1964) — that is, he would not have to prove that the Birchers had published defamatory material knowing it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth. Instead, the court ruled that, henceforth, private figures would have to show negligence at the very least, with the states free to adopt more stringent language if they chose.

Reading the Gertz decision, you can’t help but be struck how the notion of falsehood is raised over and over. The phrase “defamatory falsehood” is used repeatedly. The most famous section of the majority decision, written by Justice Lewis Powell, is built around the principle that libel is a false and defamatory statement of fact:

We begin with the common ground. Under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas. But there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact. Neither the intentional lie nor the careless error materially advances society’s interest in “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate on public issues. They belong to that category of utterances which “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”

Remember, Gertz was a private figure. Powell was writing quite specifically about the libel standards that should prevail when a private citizen brings a libel suit, yet he made it absolutely clear that falsehood and defamation are the two key elements of libel.

It’s hard to imagine what the First Circuit is thinking.

Media heavyweights seek libel relief

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.

An outrage against free speech

When politicians and good-government types talk about campaign-finance reform, what they often mean is censorship. Of course, they’ll say they oppose censorship because censorship is bad, and what they propose is good. But it’s censorship nonetheless.

As a purely symbolic protest, Media Nation today presents the trailer for “Hillary: The Movie,” a right-wing, hateful documentary about Hillary Clinton that was making the rounds last year.

As Adam Liptak reports in the New York Times, the film was banned from television — banned! — because it ran afoul of the campaign-finance laws promulgated a few years ago by Sen. John McCain, Sen. Russell Feingold and former congressmen Marty Meehan and Chris Shays.

The Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press recently filed an amicus brief urging that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the ban, instituted by the Federal Elections Commission and upheld by a lower court.

The First Amendment says in part, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” What part of “no law” don’t these people understand?

Another assault on free speech

Is there a trend afoot to enforce archaic anti-free speech laws and to ignore a century’s worth of court decisions expanding the meaning of the First Amendment?

You’ve got to wonder. First we have last week’s ruling by a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Boston undermining truth as an absolute defense in a libel suit. The ruling was based on a 1902 Massachusetts law that one would have thought would be ruled unconstitutional on its face.

Now, in Pennsylvania, state authorities have told a filmmaker that he can’t call his business I Choose Hell Productions because of a state law banning names that “constitute blasphemy, profane cursing or swearing or that profane the Lord’s name.” The filmmaker, with the help of the ACLU, has filed suit in federal district court.

It is well-established constitutional law that the 14th Amendment bars states from restricting rights more severely than the U.S. Constitution allows. I tell my students that Massachusetts laws against blasphemy were rendered unenforceable after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gitlow v. New York (1925), made it clear that the First Amendment applied to the states. (All hail Wikipedia, which nicely explains the significance of Gitlow.)

We’ll see if the federal court in Pennsylvania agrees.

A chilling decision about libel

In my latest for the Guardian, I analyze one of the most dangerous First Amendment decisions in many years — an opinion handed down by a three-judge federal appeals court panel in Boston last Friday holding that truth may no longer be an absolute defense against a libel suit.

The decision, written by Judge Juan Torruella of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, allows Alan Noonan, a sales director fired by Staples, to pursue his libel claim against the company. Staples’s executive vice president, Jay Baitler, had sent an e-mail to some 1,500 employees stating that Noonan had been terminated for violating the company’s travel and expense policies.

Torruella found that the contents of the e-mail were true, but added that, because Noonan is a private figure, the e-mail may have crossed the line into “actual malice.” In reaching that conclusion, Torruella relied on a 1902 Massachusetts law and said that “actual malice” should be defined as “ill will” or “malevolent intent.” Never mind that, in the 1964 case of Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court redefined “actual malice” so that it now pertains solely to statements made with deliberate falsity, or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, calls the ruling “the most dangerous libel decision in decades.” Longtime Massachusetts newspaper editor William Ketter, now a top executive with the CNHI chain, writes that the decision “could chill aggressive reporting of tough stories for fear that a private individual might end up suing the media even when the published facts are true.”

In an e-mail to Media Nation, Robert Bertsche, a prominent First Amendment lawyer with the Boston firm Prince Lobel Glovsky & Tye, says:

A panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals has decreed that truth is no longer an absolute defense to a libel charge in Massachusetts. The ruling is troubling on so many levels that it beggars the imagination. Begin with the court’s ruling that one can be found liable in damages for making a statement that is indisputably true — that is a notion that flies in the face of everyone’s most basic understanding of what libel is.

With this decision, the First Amendment has been replaced by the maxim, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” Consider the irony: The Supreme Court has said that there is constitutional protection for false statements on matters of public concern, but now the First Circuit says there is no constitutional protection for true statements on matters of private concern. What’s worse, the court offers no guidance about how to distinguish what is of “public concern” from what is of “private concern.” (You can be sure that among the 1,500 employees of Staples who received the company’s statement about Noonan’s firing, this was a matter of quite public concern.)

It is mind-boggling that the Court of Appeals offered so little analysis, and gave so little explanation, for a decision that arguably makes Massachusetts the least speech-protective state in the nation. Why didn’t this federal court (in a diversity case, no less) ask the Massachusetts SJC [the state’s Supreme Judicial Court] to opine on the validity and interpretation of this statute passed in the days of the buggy whip? It’s a bit like the state police descending on Fenway Park to handcuff Terry Francona for violating state law against public spitting.

Talk about a chilling effect on speech! Lawyers across the state should advise their clients simply not to say negative comments about people. Even if what you say is true, you will be made to pay damages if a judge decides that what you said is not of “public concern” and a jury decides you were motivated by ill will.

This is a bad decision for employers and employees, because it will reduce the flow of information in the workplace. It’s a disastrous decision for the media, and in particular for the new media: bloggers, people who post on Facebook, indeed anyone who has a website but lacks press credentials. That’s because the mainstream media may be protected, at least haphazardly, by an assumption that if The Boston Globe writes about a topic, then by definition the topic is one of public concern. But no such presumption is likely to protect an outspoken blogger’s critical remarks.

This is an aberrational ruling from a well-respected court. I remain hopeful that the three-judge panel will reconsider the ruling, or that the full Court of Appeals will agree to rehear it and correct this misjudgment. But until that happens, everyone who cares about free speech should lobby his or her legislator to remove this archaic statute from the law books.

As it stands, Torruella’s decision applies only to Massachusetts. But what if the federal courts were to discover similar laws on the books in other states?

You might have thought that the court would find the 1902 law to be unconstitutionally restrictive in light of Times v. Sullivan and its progeny. Instead, Torruella chose to drag freedom of speech back into the pre-1964 dark ages. Amazing. And frightening.

Stop taxing free speech

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that a recent proposal for tax-exempt, endowment-supported newspapers, though flawed, might be intriguing — but only if Lyndon Johnson’s 55-year-old ban on political speech is repealed.

From a watchdog to a lapdog

The New York Times today runs a lengthy op-ed on the idea that the only way to save newspapers may be to turn them over to non-profit endowments. It’s an intriguing notion, but the authors, Yale University endowment officers David Swensen and Michael Schmidt, point out a shortcoming that hadn’t occurred to me before:

As educational and literary organizations devoted to the “promotion of social welfare,” endowed newspapers would benefit from Section 501(c)(3) of the I.R.S. code, which provides exemption from taxes on income and allows tax deductions for people who make contributions to eligible organizations.

One constraint on an endowed institution is the prohibition in the same law against trying to “influence legislation” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” While endowed newspapers would need to refrain from endorsing candidates for public office, they would still be free to participate forcefully in the debate over issues of public importance. The loss of endorsements seems minor in the context of the opinion-heavy Web.

Minor? Uh, no. It’s bad enough that newspapers would be prohibited from endorsing candidates under this scheme. (Not that anyone reads endorsements; it’s the principle that concerns me.) But it’s easy to imagine that critics could go after the paper if any of its columnists, or even straight-news reporters, appeared to be “influenc[ing] legislation.”

I want to see newspapers survive, but I’m not sure it’s worth it if they have to give up their First Amendment rights. There’s a reason that the Founders wrote, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

There are a few papers, such as the New Hampshire Union Leader and the St. Petersburg Times, that are for-profit businesses owned by non-profit educational institutions. Such a set-up may not provide all the tax advantages Swensen and Schmidt advocate, but it doesn’t stop them from endorsing candidates for office. For instance, the Union Leader endorsed the McCain-Palin ticket this past October.

Swensen and Schmidt may mean well. But their proposal would diminish newspapers, turning them from independent watchdogs into government-subsidized lapdogs, afraid to exercise the constitutionally protected right to a free press lest the tax collector put them out of business.

Two years ago I wrote an article for CommonWealth Magazine on how alternative ownership models might save newspapers. In it, I took a look at the Union Leader and the St. Pete Times. The article is online here.

Because he might defend himself

Today we offer a postscript to Chuck Turner’s absurd call for legal sanctions against media outlets that fail to presume his innocence in an ongoing federal corruption probe. Now the government wants to take away Turner’s First Amendment rights. According to Boston Globe reporter Shelley Murphy:

Federal prosecutors urged a judge yesterday to prohibit Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner from revealing, or even talking about, evidence and witnesses the government is relying on to convince a jury that he pocketed a $1,000 bribe.

The best part is a letter written to the judge by Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil, in which he says in part: “Mr. Turner has held a series of press conferences and rallies since he was charged in this matter, aimed in part at bolstering his character and attacking the government’s motives for seeking an indictment against him from the grand jury.” And this is wrong?

McNeil goes on to say that Turner might “selectively” quote from the evidence against him, which could have the effect of “indirectly” intimidating witnesses and otherwise harming the case against him.

According to Laurel Sweet and Ed Mason, writing in the Boston Herald, the gag order sought by prosecutors could also derail an internal investigation by the Boston City Council.

The idea that Turner should be denied a look at the evidence against him unless he agrees to give up his First Amendment right to defend himself in public is offensive and outrageous. If prosecutors fear they can’t win without Turner’s silence, then they must be worried that they don’t have much of a case.

Journalism still legal in Massachusetts

Not that this was going anywhere, but the state’s Civil Service Commission has declined to punish the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover for committing journalism.

Michael Neve filed a complaint against the Tribune after the paper photographed him leaving a hearing at which he testified to having offered a $15,000 bribe to Methuen Mayor William Manzi. (Manzi reportedly did not accept the bribe, and the case is actually about something else.)

Neve’s lawyer had persuaded the commission to bar anyone from taking a photo during and after the hearing, held Oct. 30 in Boston. The Tribune responded by snapping Neve’s picture outside, after he’d left the building. Neve’s lawyer, James Krasnoo, tried to argue that “after” encompassed his client’s perambulations outdoors, in a public place, which is quite a stretch. By that definition, it’s still “after.”

I think it’s a good result for the paper and I think it’s the right result for the paper’s readers as well,” the Tribune’s lawyer, friend of Media Nation Rob Bertsche, is quoted as saying.

My only quibble: the Tribune should have posted the photo online.

When GateHouse met Google

Yes, it’s all GateHouse all the time at Media Nation. In my latest for the Guardian, I cast a wary eye on Google’s seemingly benign takeover of the virtual village common — and cite GateHouse as an example of why it may not be so benign after all.

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