Former Liberian dictator threatens to sue Boston Globe

Days before the Boston Globe published a withering editor’s note essentially retracting its Jan. 17 story about former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor’s alleged ties to the CIA, African news sources were reporting that Taylor was threatening to sue the Globe for libel.

Taylor escaped from a jail in Plymouth, Mass., in 1985, under circumstances suspicious enough to stoke rumors that U.S. authorities were involved. He is now facing charges in a war-crimes trial stemming from his brutal reign.

This past Monday, two days before the editor’s note appeared, the New Dawn, based in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, quoted Taylor’s lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, as saying that Taylor denied having worked as a spy for the U.S. government. The article includes this:

“I spoke with Mr. Taylor,” Mr. Griffiths said. “He was very adamant that he has never worked for any American (spy) agency. The Liberian Security Agencies have worked … His National Patriotic Party of Liberia (NPFL) … But he as an individual has never worked (for the US Intelligence Agency).

“I know Mr. Taylor is very angry and he is not taking this likely [sic],” Griffiths told the New Dawn.

The story was carried in All Africa, which aggregates African news from a variety of sources. It includes the text of a letter Griffiths said he sent to Globe editor Marty Baron and others at the newspaper demanding copies of the documents they relied on in putting together their report. But the Globe now tells us there are no documents.

The editor’s note couldn’t be much tougher. It begins: “A front-page story on Jan. 17 drew unsupported conclusions and significantly overstepped available evidence when it described former Liberia president Charles Taylor as having worked with US spy agencies as a ‘sought-after source.'”

It goes on to describe the Globe’s longstanding Freedom of Information Act request that U.S. officials turn over documents related to what if any relationship the government had with Taylor. But though the Jan. 17 story, by longtime Globe staff reporter Bryan Bender, appears to be based at least in part on the documents, the editor’s note says otherwise:

[The US Defense Intelligence Agency] offered no such confirmation; rather, it said only that it possessed 48 documents running to 153 pages that fall in the category of what the Globe asked for — records relating to Taylor and to his relationship, if any, with American intelligence going back to 1982. The agency, however, refused to release the documents and gave no indication of what was in them.

The editor’s note concludes:

Taylor, now standing trial before a UN special court on charges of rape, murder and other offenses, denies he was ever a source for US intelligence. The Globe had no adequate basis for asserting otherwise and the story should not have run in this form.

There is still much that we don’t know. For instance, on Tuesday, Africa Review reported that Griffiths had “acknowledged that the Liberian Security agencies as well as his [Taylor’s] National Patriotic Party of Liberia worked or associated with US intelligence organs but not himself personally.” That’s hardly a blanket denial.

And at Foreign Policy’s Passport blog, Joshua Keating doesn’t seem all that upset about Taylor’s injured feelings. Calling the Globe’s note a “near retraction,” Keating nevertheless ends with this: “The fact that these ‘records relating to Taylor and to his relationship, if any, with American intelligence’ [quoting the Globe] exist but the CIA won’t release them is only going to increase the curiosity about what they contain. The correction is unlikely to stop the rumor mills in Monrovia, Washington, or The Hague.”

Bender is a good and careful reporter, and it seems pretty clear that there are other shoes yet to be dropped. The only thing we can say for certain at this point is that it’s all way too weird to come to any conclusions.

Appeal filed in bloggers-aren’t-journalists case

Lawyer-blogger Eugene Volokh has filed an appeal in the matter of the Montana blogger who lost a $2.5 million libel case after a federal judge ruled she was not entitled to the legal protections enjoyed by journalists.

“The motion for new trial,” Volokh writes, “argues that the First Amendment applies equally to all who speak to the public, whether or not they belong to the institutional media.”

I wrote about the case last month for the Huffington Post. In a nutshell, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that Crystal Cox, a self-described “investigative blogger,” could not be considered a journalist under Oregon law, where she was sued. Hernandez wrote that he reached that conclusion because Cox did not work for a newspaper or broadcast outlet, and because she lacked training and failed to demonstrate professional standards.

Hernandez’s ruling had two effects. First, Cox could not invoke Oregon’s shield law to protect her source or sources, whose identity was sought by the plaintiffs, a financial-services company and one of its executives. That ruling was actually of little account, since even established media organizations can’t invoke shield laws to defend themselves against libel suits.

Of far more importance was Hernandez’s ruling that the plaintiffs would not have to prove Cox had acted negligently — only that what she had published was false and defamatory. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that libel plaintiffs must prove the defendant acted with some degree of fault, with negligence as the lowest standard the states could require. But, seizing on an ambiguity in the wording, Hernandez claimed the Gertz protection only applies to professional journalists.

Volokh, by contrast, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear for many decades that journalists do not enjoy any special protections under the First Amendment — meaning that any rulings the court has made about the press apply to everyone, not just to those carrying a press pass from a newspaper or television station. (Which was the main thrust of my Huffington Post commentary.) According to the brief, filed by Volokh and Benjamin Souede:

[W]hile the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision establishes what Oregon state libel law is, it is the judgments of the United States Supreme Court that are controlling on the First Amendment question. The United States Supreme Court has never held that the institutional press enjoys such extra rights. All the federal courts of appeals that have considered this question have specifically held that the institutional press lacks any such extra rights.

As several people who’ve looked at this case have reported, most notably David Carr of the New York Times, there is ample evidence that Crystal Cox’s conduct was reprehensible, and that the plaintiffs — Obsidian Financial Group and one of its executives, Kevin Padrick — might easily have won their libel case even if they had been required to meet the Gertz negligence standard.

What makes this case important is not Cox, but rather the principle that all of us — not just professional journalists — should be able to speak and write freely without inadvertently running afoul of libel laws.

More on the journalists-aren’t-bloggers ruling

The redoubtable David Carr has an interesting column in today’s New York Times in which he reports that “investigative blogger” Crystal Cox’s conduct was considerably beyond the pale of what anyone would consider journalism. (My Huffington Post commentary on the case is here.)

But if her behavior was that egregious, then the plaintiffs should have had no problem convincing a jury that she acted negligently (or worse). The negligence standard is a vital constitutional protection regardless of whether those benefitting from it are sympathetic figures.

In order to prove libel, a plaintiff must show that information published or broadcast about him was false and defamatory. Starting with the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court began to require a third element as well: fault. The regime that’s in effect today was solidified by the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. Here’s what the courts mean by “fault”:

  • A public official or public figure must show that what was published or broadcast about him was done so with knowing falsity, or with “reckless disregard” of whether it was true or false.
  • A private figure must show that the defendant acted negligently when it published or broadcast false, defamatory information about the plaintiff.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez, in his pretrial ruling, obliterated the fault requirement for any defendant except those he deems to be journalists, ignoring the Supreme Court’s longstanding position that the First Amendment applies equally to all of us — for the “lonely pamphleteer” as much as for major newspaper publishers, as Justice Byron White put it in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972).

Hernandez’s contention that journalists enjoy greater free-speech protections than non-journalists is an outrage, and should not be allowed to stand.

Libel suit against Herald will proceed

Judge Raymond Brassard

A Superior Court judge recently refused to throw out a libel suit brought against the Boston Herald by a woman who claims the paper defamed her by falsely reporting she’d had sex with an inmate during a visit to the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. The suit was filed in 2010, and I posted some background on the case at that time.

The plaintiff, Joanna Marinova, accompanied state Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston, on a visit to the prison in May 2009. The Herald published a front-page story on May 28 of that year by reporter Jessica Van Sack saying that Fox had snuck Marinova in to see her boyfriend, a convicted murderer named Darrell Jones, and that Marinova had been “previously bagged for engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with the killer con.”

Marinova says the story is false. According to prison records introduced as part of the lawsuit, Jones had been disciplined for kissing Marinova and rubbing her leg, but there was no suggestion the two had had sex.

According to a story in the current Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (sub. req.), the Herald’s lawyer, Elizabeth Ritvo, argued that the case should be dismissed because Marinova’s contention that the Herald had claimed she and Jones had sex was “a strange and tortured interpretation” of what the paper actually published.

But Judge Raymond Brassard disagreed, saying “it seems to me that not only a reasonable reader, but virtually any reader, even a First Amendment lawyer would read that and think this person was involved in some sort of sexual intercourse with this man at the prison. I don’t know how a reasonable person could think otherwise.”

Marinova’s lawyer is David Rich, who was part of the legal team that successfully sued the Herald on behalf of former judge Ernest Murphy several years ago. In an unrelated action, Tom Scholz, leader of the band Boston, is suing the Herald for libel over accusations that were made following the suicide of lead singer Brad Delp.

Marinova had also sued WHDH-TV (Channel 7), which broadcast a story similar to the Herald’s. Lawyers Weekly reports that the two sides have apparently reached a settlement.

The hearing that led Judge Brassard not to grant the Herald’s motion for summary judgment was held on Sept. 22. I have posted the document here.

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.

How will ruling in Scholz lawsuit affect the Herald?

A Superior Court judge’s ruling in the messy legal aftermath of Boston singer Brad Delp’s suicide represents a setback for Boston founder Tom Scholz, the Boston Herald reports. But what effect it will have on Scholz’ libel suit against the Herald itself is unclear.

Judge John Cratsley dismissed Scholz’s suit against Delp’s ex-wife, Micki Delp, ruling that Scholz failed to prove she had defamed him. Relying in part on quotes from Micki Delp, the Herald’s Inside Track reported shortly after Brad Delp’s 2007 suicide that she blamed her ex-husband’s death on Scholz.

But Cratsley’s decision goes on to say that some of the Herald’s reporting that might be found libelous was not traceable to Micki Delp:

While Micki’s statements speak to Brad’s “dysfunctional professional life,” … it is the Boston Herald writers who create the connection to Scholz and the possible implication that Scholz was responsible for the “dysfunction” and thus, Brad’s suicide.

Cratsley said that Micki Delp made six statements to the Herald (two of which she denied having made) and that those statements were about her ex-husband and his state of mind — not about Scholz. “The Herald writers, for whatever reason, added Scholz’ name and his quotes [in response to Micki Delp’s statements],” the judge wrote. “So if there is any possibility that the article is ‘of and concerning’ Scholz, it is the Herald writers’ doing.” (“Of and concerning” is a reference to one of the legal standards for proving libel.)

As I wrote earlier this year, it would have a chilling effect if the Herald were held liable for statements by Micki Delp whose veracity the newspaper had no reason to doubt. But if Scholz’ lawyer, Howard Cooper, is able to show that the Herald libeled him on its own, without any reliance on Micki Delp, then that would be another matter entirely.

I realize this is all a bit murky. I hope one of our legal bloggers takes this on in the next day or so.

A troubling libel suit against the Herald

Brad Delp

Geoff Edgers’ story in Sunday’s Boston Globe on the troubled life of Boston singer Brad Delp raises some interesting questions about libel law. The most important is this: If a newspaper publishes a report that is accurate, what obligation does it have to verify that it is also true?

Following Delp’s suicide in 2007, the Boston Herald’s Inside Track reporters, Laura Raposa and Gayle Fee, wrote that Delp’s ex-wife, Micki Delp, blamed Delp’s death on his troubled relationship with Tom Scholz, Boston’s founder and leader. According to court documents examined by Edgers, the Tracksters also relied on e-mails from Micki Delp’s sister Connie Goudreau. (Here’s some more background on the case and its principals.)

Scholz, in turn, sued Micki Delp and Connie Goudreau for defamation, and in 2010 filed a libel suit against the Herald as well, charging that the Herald should have known Micki Delp had a personal vendetta against Scholz. Goudreau has settled with Scholz, but the other cases remain unresolved.

Edgers presents powerful evidence that Delp’s suicide should not be blamed on Scholz. Delp had suffered from depression for years, and his relationship with his fiancée, Pamela Sullivan, was troubled. Still, who knows what could drive a person to suicide?

In simple terms, the legal question is whether the Herald was obliged to go beyond accurately reporting what Micki Delp and Goudreau were telling its reporters and determine whether their accusations against Scholz were actually true. Was Delp as upset with Scholz as his ex-wife and sister-in-law claimed? Did that so traumatize Delp that it could have contributed to his suicidal state of mind?

A verdict against the Herald would be very bad news for the press. Because Scholz is a public figure, he would have to prove that the Herald knew or strongly suspected that its reporting was false. Even if Fee and/or Raposa knew Micki Delp had it in for Scholz, it doesn’t necessary follow that they thought she was lying.

In the relevant Supreme Court case, Harte-Hanks Communications v. Connaughton (1989), the court found in favor of a public official who’d been maligned after it was proven (among other things) that the managing editor of the local newspaper literally ordered reporters not to interview a source or examine documents that might contradict the story she wanted to publish.

That is not remotely what’s at issue in the Scholz case. Based on Edgers’ article, it seems to me that not only did Fee and Raposa not doubt they’d gotten the story right, but that Scholz would have a very difficult time proving they’d gotten it wrong in any definitive way.

Photo (cc) by Craig Michaud via Wikimedia Commons and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Libel suit filed over Gloria Fox’s prison visit

Rep. Gloria Fox

The Boston Herald has been hit with a libel suit for the second time this year. The Boston Globe’s David Abel reports that the plaintiff is Joanna Marinova, who accompanied state Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston, to the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater last year.

The Herald published a front-page story on May 28 by Jessica Van Sack claiming Fox had snuck Marinova in to see her boyfriend, a convicted murderer named Darrell Jones, and that Marinova had been “previously bagged for engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with the killer con.” The Herald cited “two prison sources,” both anonymous.

Marinova sued the Herald and WHDH-TV (Channel 7), which also ran the story, saying through her lawyer, David Rich, that the news organizations “blatantly ignored readily available facts that would have demonstrated the falsity of these assertions.”

According to Abel, the Herald declined to respond and no one at Channel 7 would return his calls.

As with a libel suit recently brought against the Herald by Tom Scholz of the band Boston, it makes sense to wait and see what’s in the Herald’s and Channel 7’s official response. In this case, though, Adam Reilly did some reporting last year for the Boston Phoenix that cast considerable doubt on (1) the Herald’s claim that Fox had falsely portrayed Marinova as her aide and (2) that Marinova and Jones had engaged in illicit sex during a prison visit.

Reilly, now a producer with “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2), noted that Marinova had told the Globe that the so-called sexual contact for which Jones had been punished consisted of Jones touching her knee during a visit. And Reilly pointed to other sources, including Jones’ blog and an official report, that tend to support that version of events.

If the Herald’s and Channel 7’s reporting was wrong, that doesn’t necessarily mean they committed libel. Even though it is Marinova who’s suing, it’s Fox’s involvement that made this a newsworthy story. A judge could rule that because Fox is a public official, Marinova must prove that the Herald and Channel 7 either knew their reporting was wrong or strongly suspected it, yet went ahead anyway — a legal standard known as “reckless disregard for the truth.”

On the other hand, a judge could rule that because Marinova herself is a private person, then she need only prove that the defendants acted negligently.

Looking down the road, I would imagine that Marinova will try to force the defendants to reveal their confidential sources as well.

Needless to say, this will be a very interesting case to watch.

And so they meet again

It’s Howard Cooper versus the Boston Herald, round two.

Cooper, you may recall, is the Boston lawyer who represented then-judge Ernest Murphy in his libel suit against the Herald, which had portrayed him as someone who had “heartlessly” demeaned a teenage rape victim. Murphy won a $2 million-plus verdict against the Herald in 2005. I don’t think Murphy was libeled, but Cooper was able to convince a jury otherwise. Here is more than you’ll ever want to know about that case.

Now Cooper is suing the Herald on behalf of Tom Scholz of the band Boston, claiming that Inside Track reporters Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa fabricated quotes attributed to Micki Delp, ex-wife of Boston lead singer Brad Delp, as well as from unnamed “insiders,” to make it appear that Delp had blamed Scholz for her husband’s suicide.

Courthouse News Service has a detailed account of the suit, though there’s a mistake in the lede — Delp committed suicide in 2007, not 1997. The story is accompanied by a copy of the complaint (pdf). I have not had a chance to do more than skim it, so I’m staying away from any detailed analysis. I do see that Cooper cites Boston magazine’s 2006 story “Gals Gone Wild,” by John Gonzalez, as example of what Cooper calls Fee and Raposa’s “unprofessional, irresponsible and reckless tactics and methods.” For good measure, Cooper calls them “so-called ‘reporters.'”

The Herald has not yet filed a response. Herald spokeswoman Gwen Gage tells the Boston Globe, “We’re aware of the complaint and we will review it. Beyond that, we have no further comment.”

In 2006 Mark Jurkowitz wrote an in-depth profile of Cooper for the Boston Phoenix (via Romenesko). The headline: “The media’s worst nightmare?” At One Herald Square, the answer to that question would be a decided “yes.”

ACLU attorney Wunsch on the anti-SLAPP ruling

Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, e-mailed her thoughts on the state Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that journalists are not protected by a state law prohibiting “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — also known as the anti-SLAPP statute. The Associated Press covers the ruling here. Background here. Below is Wunsch’s e-mail, presented in its entirety.

Despite our amicus brief urging otherwise, the SJC has affirmed Judge Hines’s Superior Court denial of the special motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute that had been filed by the journalist, Hollander, after she was sued by the developer, Fustolo. The unanimous opinion is written by Justice Botsford. Her opinion focuses on the fact that Hollander was not seeking to redress a grievance or to petition for relief of her own. She says, “As in Kobrin, the defendant’s conduct was not an attempt to redress a wrong he suffered, nor was he petitioning on his own behalf.”

Although the opinion says that a person is protected only if personally seeking redress of a grievance of his or her own, Justice Botsford distinguishes a case in which an attorney was given protection under the anti-SLAPP statute for his statements on behalf of his clients, and not for himself. To do that, she asserts that reporters occupy a different position with respect to a petitioning party than does the party’s attorney.

“There is nothing about the role or function of a staff reporter of an independent newspaper that by its nature renders the reporter a representative or agent of every, or indeed any, community organization that the reporter may cover,” particularly where the reporter denies representing a particular viewpoint. She contrasts this with Baker v. Parsons, where a biologist employed by an organization testified about her views and was protected by the SLAPP statute. (This reasoning seems to leave out of the equation whether the media outlet itself is the “petitioning party.” She seems to assume that it is only the community-based advocacy groups whose views the journalist is promoting.)

Thus, one of our concerns, that employees of advocacy organizations would not be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, appears alleviated. Even if you are working for someone else as an advocate, as long as it is clear you are advocating for something, you should be protected.

Justice Botsford does reject the concept in Judge Hines’ opinion that because Hollander was paid, she had a private reason for her reporting, and was not sued for her petitioning alone. Being paid does not take a person out of the SLAPP protection.

Finally, Justice Botsford disagrees that this ruling will chill journalists. She cites New York Times v. Sullivan and the protection for reporters under that and under the fair-report doctrine.

As I read the opinion, a reporter writing news stories that are supposedly “objective” will not be protected by the SLAPP statute, despite the very broad definition of petitioning activity. If an editor or publisher wants to stir up the public to get them to support government action by focusing a series of news articles on the subject, too bad. No anti-SLAPP statute protection seemingly for the journalist despite the fact that the definition of petitioning includes this. I do not think this result is correct.

Under the Botsford decision, an opinion columnist is likely going to be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, as is an employee of an advocacy organization. It seems that the concept of objective fair news reporting operates here to deprive news reporters of anti-SLAPP statute protection. One question is whether the newspaper publisher will be protected. The Botsford opinion talks about advocacy organizations but doesn’t seem to recognize that news media organizations can be advocacy organizations or be the “petitioning party” itself, engaged in activity that meets the definition of petitioning under the statute.