Trouble has been bubbling for the past several years regarding libel protections for the press.
In 2019, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that it was time to reconsider the landmark 1964 ruling of New York Times v. Sullivan, which decreed that public officials can’t bring a successful libel suit unless they can prove that false, defamatory material about them was published in the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. (That standard was later extended to public figures as well.)
Next week, the court will consider whether to hear two libel cases that would give them an opportunity to weaken the Times v. Sullivan protections. Thomas and Gorsuch may prove to be outliers, but given the court’s new supercharged conservative majority, we shouldn’t take anything for granted. First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams writes in The New York Times:
Should the court agree to hear one or both of the libel cases does not mean, of course, that either or both would be overruled…. But it is troubling that two of the court’s nine justices have criticized Sullivan and seem ready to overrule it. Only four votes are required for the full court to take up cases, and if it does so, a fifth would be needed for any ruling.
And that’s not the only sign of trouble on the libel front. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post details a bizarre case involving U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who is so litigious that he once sued a Twitter account called “Devin Nunes’ Cow.”
I’m not going to go deep into the details; Wemple’s got that nailed down for you. But the outline of it is that Nunes sued the journalist Ryan Lizza over an article he wrote for Esquire. Nunes’ libel claim appears to be hanging by a thread — again, because it seems unlikely that Nunes will be able to meet the Times v. Sullivan standard. But at some point after he filed his lawsuit, Lizza tweeted out a link to the article. Nunes, of course, claimed that was libelous as well.
I noticed that Devin Nunes is in the news. If you’re interested in a strange tale about Nunes, small-town Iowa, the complexities of immigration policy, a few car chases, and lots of cows, I’ve got a story for you… https://t.co/yzXHlCihDY
Rather than tossing the Twitter claim, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit have kept it alive for further consideration, “even though” as Wemple writes, “other courts have ruled that just linking to a long-standing story doesn’t constitute ‘republication.'” The court ruled that because Nunes’ suit put Lizza on notice that his story might contain falsehoods, then he should have refrained from tweeting it out (never mind that Lizza insists his story was true). But Wemple quotes Jeffrey Pyle, a Boston-based First Amendment lawyer at Prince Lobel Tye:
Until now, the courts have been unanimous that hyperlinks, retweets, and other references to allegedly defamatory articles are not “republications.” The Eighth Circuit departs from this consensus without much, if any, explanation why.
Journalists are able to do the work they do because they don’t have to worry about frivolous lawsuits. That has now come under question, and we all need to keep a close eye on what happens next.
For the past several years, police departments in Massachusetts have been routinely denying the public access to “incident reports,” the written narratives of police responses to alleged crimes. Law enforcement agencies used to disclose these reports as a matter of course, sometimes redacting sensitive information. But now, every week, I and other media lawyers at my firm hear from reporters who are being denied basic information about such things as car accidents and drug arrests. The police withhold this information despite the strong presumption in our new, strengthened Public Records Act that all government documents must be made open for public inspection unless a specific exemption makes them confidential.
The damage this excessive secrecy poses to local journalism is well reported, but it’s not only the public’s right to know that can suffer. In some cases, the refusal to release incident reports can threaten the criminal justice system itself, potentially keeping innocent people behind bars and allowing dangerous criminals to remain free in the community. This problem is illustrated by the case of Frederick Clay, who was freed from prison this week after serving 38 years for a crime he did not commit.
Around 4 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 16, 1979, a taxicab pulled up to the Archdale Housing Project in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. Three young men exited the cab and then pulled the cab driver, Jeffrey Boyajian, out of the car and onto the ground. Witnesses claimed that two of the assailants were around 6 feet tall, and the other was shorter, about 5 feet 8 inches. All three were wearing dark clothing, possibly including black leather jackets. The men searched through Boyajian’s pockets and beat him as he cried, “Take what you want, but let me live.” After stepping away from Boyajian, the shorter man took out a handgun with his left hand and shot Boyajian five times. The attackers fled on foot.
The police subjected two of the witnesses of the morning’s events to hypnosis to try to help them identify a suspect — a practice that would soon (thankfully) be ruled unlawful. One of these witnesses didn’t see the attack at all — he just thought he’d seen the trio get into Boyajian’s cab earlier that night. The second, a young man with an intellectual disability, saw the attack from a second-story window. Neither witness was sure he could identify anyone before hypnosis, but after it — and after other procedures that would today be deemed too suggestive — both picked out Frederick Clay, age 16.
Clay insisted he was asleep in his room at a foster home on the night of the crime, and his foster mother corroborated his alibi at trial. Clay was also right-handed, not left-handed like the shooter. But the police figured they had their suspect. That’s why they failed to follow up on indications that two other Archdale residents — a left-handed 16-year-old who was 5 feet 8 inches and his much taller brother — may have been the real culprits. On Aug. 19, 1981, a jury convicted Clay of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
After years of fruitless appeals and post-conviction motions, Clay’s case came to the attention of attorneys Lisa Kavanaugh and Jeffrey Harris. Kavanaugh learned of the other suspect and his possible links to the crime, so she sent public records requests to the Boston Police for incident reports of his arrests around the time of the shooting. She was hoping to get mugshots of the suspect, details of his physical appearance, and other evidence showing that he matched the descriptions of the shooter, as well as information about his propensity to engage in robberies like the one that claimed Boyajian’s life.
The initial response of the Boston Police was a flat “no.” In a May 2015 letter, they told Kavanaugh that her request for the report of a 1985 arrest for assault and battery would be denied because she knew the names of the “parties involved” (she’d mentioned them in the requests to help the police identify the reports). and therefore their “privacy” could not be protected through redaction. Also, the police said, the report contained “investigatory material” (even though the investigation was long over) and “arrest information” that is “protected from disclosure” under the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law.
These are the same justifications police departments are now using to deny access to police reports to the media, and they are wrong. As I’ve explained elsewhere, neither the “investigatory” exemption to the public records law nor the CORI statute permit the withholding of entire incident reports. Nonetheless, the Massachusetts State Police recently argued to the supervisor of records for the secretary of state’s office that it does not have an obligation even to try to redact police reports — it can instead withhold them in their entirety whenever they want. (There’s a reason the State Police won the Investigative Reporters & Editors 2015 “Golden Padlock Award,” a national recognition given to the most secretive government agency in the country.)
Kavanaugh didn’t take no for an answer. She asked me to intercede on her behalf with counsel for the Boston Police, and after much back and forth, including a threat of a lawsuit, the police agreed to produce reports for a number of incidents involving the other suspect from the 1980s — while still insisting on redacting his name (as if Kavanaugh didn’t already know it). Those reports led to other reports, and ultimately to a section of Kavanaugh’s and Harris’ masterful 75-page motion for a new trial that addressed the similarity of the other suspect’s appearance to descriptions of the Boyajian attacker and showed his propensity to commit similar crimes.
The Suffolk County DA’s office did its own investigation in response to Clay’s motion, and this past Tuesday — just one week before Clay was to be released on parole — the office assented to his motion and decided not to re-prosecute the case. The DA’s office did so in part because it agreed that the lead on the other suspect should have been pursued. In an emotional hearing in courtroom 906, Judge Christine Roach granted Clay’s motion, ordered his shackles removed, and declared him a free man — after serving 38 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The incident reports in Clay’s case played only a small part in his release, but they corroborated an important alternative theory of who may have committed a heinous murder. The Boston Police should be commended for reversing their initial determination and releasing the records. But the problem remains: Absent judicial or legislative intervention, police departments will continue to deny access to incident reports for no good reason, regardless of whether they may shed light on an unsolved case, reveal important trends in law enforcement, or possibly free an innocent person. For the sake of the criminal justice system and the public’s right to know, that practice must end — and soon.
Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner in the Media and First Amendment Law group at Prince Lobel Tye, LLP, in Boston.
Thanks to The Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack, we learned last week that the supervisor of records, charged with enforcing the Massachusetts public records law, has permitted police departments withhold arrest reports and mug shots from the public in their “discretion.” Unsurprisingly, police departments have exercised that “discretion” to shield the identities of police officers arrested for drunken driving while publicizing the arrests of other Massachusetts residents for the same crime.
Yesterday, Secretary of State William Galvin took to Jim Braude’s “Greater Boston” show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) to defend the rulings. He pointed out that he had previously ruled that arrest reports to be public, but said he had to back down because another agency, the Department of Criminal Justice Information Systems (DCJIS), told him the records are secret under the “criminal offender record information” (CORI) statute. Former attorney general Martha Coakley shared that view, Galvin said, and the new attorney general, Maura Healey, has tentatively agreed.
But are they correct? Does the law allow the police officers to decide which arrest reports do and do not get released? The answer, thankfully, is no.
First some quick background. The public records law creates a presumption that all government records are public. Only if a specific, listed exemption applies can the government withhold documents, and those exemptions are supposed to be construed narrowly. Galvin relies on the exemption for records “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute,” here, the CORI law. The CORI law does impose certain limits on the disclosure of “criminal offender record information,” but it limits that term to information “recorded as the result of the initiation of criminal proceedings and any consequent proceedings related thereto.”
The word “initiation” is important. As late as 2010, Galvin’s office held the commonsense view that a “criminal proceeding” is initiated with the filing of a criminal complaint. Arrest reports and mug shots are generated before criminal complaints are filed, so they’re presumptively public. But in 2011, the DCJIS (which administers the state’s CORI database) told Galvin it believed “initiation of criminal proceedings” means “the point when a criminal investigation is sufficiently complete that the investigating officers take actions toward bringing a specific suspect to court.” That necessarily precedes arrest and booking, so all arrest reports and mug shots are covered by CORI. This “interpretation” is now contained in a DCJIS regulation. Another regulation says that police can release CORI information surrounding an investigation if they think it’s appropriate to do so.
In the common parlance, however, “criminal proceedings” occur in court, and they begin with the filing of a criminal charge. We don’t typically think of an arrest without charges as involving a “proceeding.” Galvin seems to agree — his office’s rulings have said only that DCJIS believes “initiation” occurs earlier — but he has thrown up his hands and deferred to this odd “interpretation” of the CORI statute.
The thing is, Galvin isn’t bound by what DCJIS says. The public records law says that the supervisor of records is entitled to determine “whether the record requested is public.” The DCJIS’s regulation adopting this view is irrelevant, too, because as noted above, the public records law only exempts documents “specifically or by necessary implication exempted from disclosure by statute.” The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 1999 that the “statutory” exemption doesn’t extend to mere regulatory enactments “promulgated under statutory authority,” even “in close cooperation with the Legislature.” Despite this ruling, just Wednesday, Galvin’s office again refused to order state police officer mug shots to Wallack on the ground that “[b]y regulation,” — not statute — they are exempt CORI documents.
Wallack’s reporting has led us to a momentous Sunshine Week in Massachusetts. We’ve seen unusual, coordinated editorials in major Massachusetts newspapers condemning the rulings, a letter published in the Globe, the Boston Herald and GateHouse Media newspapers (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Herald News of Fall River) signed by members of the Northeastern Journalism School faculty, and extensive coverage on the normally neglected subject of government transparency.
To his credit, Galvin is calling for reforms to the public records law, and Attorney General Healey has vowed to work with his office to strengthen transparency. Reforms are sorely needed, especially to require shifting of attorneys’ fees if a requester successfully sues. But in the meantime, Galvin can and should reconsider his misguided rulings on arrest records.
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.
In a final coda to a longstanding libel suit, the Associated Press reports that the Boston Herald has agreed to pay $900,000 to Joanna Marinova, the woman whom the paper had falsely claimed engaged in “sexual acts” with an inmate she was visiting at Bridgewater state prison.
I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disparity between the $900,000 reported by the AP and the $563,000 cited last March by attorney Jeffrey Pyle in a guest commentary for Media Nation.
The details of the case are enormously complex. Here is what I wrote when the jury verdict against the Herald was handed down. It includes links to more background information.
It looks like we have our first WGBH News Muzzle Awards winner of 2015. Last night the Massachusetts Legislature passed Senate Bill 2334, which, as I wrote here yesterday, would block access to certain police records now open to the public.
The ostensible purpose is to protect victims of domestic violence, but as First Amendment lawyer Jeffrey Pyle tells David Scharfenberg of The Boston Globe, “Problems with the criminal justice system are rarely, if ever, solved by decreasing transparency.”
The bill had not come to a vote before Scharfenberg’s deadline, but Globe reporter Michael Levenson tweets that it’s now on its way to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk — and that he’s likely to sign it.
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.
Wornick, of WCVB-TV (Channel 5), recounted her ordeal of being almost jailed in the mid-1980s for refusing to reveal her confidential source to police and a grand jury investigating alleged corruption by Revere police. “I made this promise because this man had important information. Without his information, I could not have told the story, and law enforcement could not have done their jobs.”
“I was terrified,” Wornick recalled, but she said she received widespread public support for her courage in protecting her source. “People were infuriated that I was being harassed and demonized by law enforcement because I wouldn’t break my promise.” Ultimately the source identified himself in order to save Wornick from jail time. It was big news at the time; she received a standing ovation from a packed Boston Garden when she was introduced to the crowd at a Celtics game.
“We need a shield law in Massachusetts to that journalists can do their jobs,” she said. “Anonymous sources are crucial” to journalists — we all know that.”
Media lawyer Jonathan M. Albano followed. When he started working in this legal area in 1982, the most recent case on the subject was In re Roche, two years earlier, in which the Supreme Judicial Court noted that it might be beneficial if Massachusetts law provided reporters “more clearly defined protection against intrusive discovery” than existed under the common law balancing test then (and now) in force. With clearer standards in place, “news reporters and sources might be able to base their behavior on better defined expectations, thus encouraging informed expression,” the court wrote then.
“It has been 32 years since that case and there are still no definite rules in place to guide reporters,” said Albano, managing partner of Bingham McCutchen’s Boston office. “Today, whether a source will be protected, and whether a reporter will be required to testify about that source, depends on which judge you draw,” and that judge’s exercise of her or his discretion, he said.
Pyle, appearing on behalf of the New England Newspaper and Press Association (with 230 Massachusetts daily and weekly newspaper members), then described the provisions of the proposed shield law. “The bill provides much-needed clarity that would protect the future Susan Wornicks of the world,” he told the filled hearing room.
As Jeff explained, the proposed law would apply to “covered persons,” those working for “news media” and who prepared the information at issue in that capacity. “News media,” in turn, is defined to include not only mainstream and student media but also “any entity that is in the regular business of gathering and disseminating news or information to the public by any means….”
The bill offers a near-absolute privilege as to disclosure of information identifying any news source (whether confidential or not), subject only to an exception where necessary “to prevent imminent and actual harm to public security from acts of terrorism,” in which case disclosure may be compelled if disclosure of the source’s identify “would prevent such harm” and if “the harm sought to be redressed by requiring disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in protecting the free flow of information.”
The bill offers a qualified privilege as to unpublished information, the disclosure of which may be compelled only if a court finds, after notice and hearing, that there is “clear and convincing evidence” establishing that (1) the information is “critical and necessary to the resolution of a significant legal issue” before a governmental entity, (2) the information “could not be obtained by any alternative means” and (3) “there is an overriding public interest in the disclosure.”
Jeff reminded the committee of Providence television reporter Jim Taricani’s four months of home confinement in Rhode Island for defying a court order to reveal a source; James Risen’s ongoing battle to protect his source for national security secrets published in his 2006 book about the CIA; and Fox News reporter Jana Winter’s battle to protect a confidential source for her story about the notebook that James Holmes sent to his psychiatrist, previewing the shooting spree that resulted in the death of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. “In the absence of a shield law,” he said, “Massachusetts reporters face a real and imminent threat of going to jail” simply for doing their jobs.
Rep. Cutler, himself a former third-generation newspaper editor, assured his fellow legislators about what the proposed law is not: “It is not about protecting journalists — it’s about protecting journalism,” he said. It’s not the creation of a new evidentiary privilege, but rather the codification of an existing common law privilege. It’s not a “roadblock” to district attorneys, but rather “a road map setting forth the rules.” It’s “not a new, unproven legal theory,” but rather a piece of legislation already in place, to a greater or lesser extent, in 40 states. And it’s “not about helping media conglomerates,” but rather about “protecting the little guy,” including the small-town newspapers for whom even the “mere threat of a subpoena can have a chilling effect.”
When the floor was opened to questions, Rep. Markey, who worked for 15 years as a prosecutor in the Bristol County district attorney’s office, vigorously challenged the shield law advocates. He objected that the proposed law would deprive prosecutors of an important investigative and prosecutorial tool. He also lamented that as to identification of sources, the law would provide an undifferentiated privilege for reporters, the applicability of which would not vary based on the level of public importance of the issue about which information is sought. Markey said he believed the law would shift control of criminal investigations from prosecutors to journalists: “You’re putting the burden on government to show there are no alternatives” before seeking testimony from a reporter, such that a “journalist who hasn’t taken an oath is now the only person who has that knowledge” about certain criminal activity.
Albano disagreed, reminding Markey, “The journalist does not decide, the judge decides.” Markey retorted that the “clear and convincing evidence standard” to be met by those seeking a reporter’s testimony would prove a difficult hurdle to surmount. He ended with an emotional appeal, saying he is concerned about the law’s impact on “a 39-year-old mother who has a 19-year-old son who has been shot, and who is going to a wake that night,“ and who wants the police to do all they can to find her son’s killer. “You’re telling the police, ‘Go to everyone else, but don’t go to [the reporter]. “