SJC rules against journalist-activist

Adam Gaffin has already posted some details on the state Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling earlier today against Fredda Holland, a journalist who claimed that a libel suit filed against her should be dismissed on the grounds that it was aimed at putting a halt to her community activism. Gaffin has posted the full decision as well.

Hollander, a former reporter for the Regional Review, had been active in a neighborhood association along with her husband, Bill Lee. She had used her platform at the Review to oppose plans by a North End developer named Steven Fustolo. When Fustolo sued her for libel, Hollander’s lawyer, Harvey Shapiro, argued that she should be protected by the state’s anti-SLAPP law, an acronym that means “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

For background, click here. Disclosure: I was paid to write an affidavit (pdf) on Hollander’s behalf at an earlier stage of the case.

An important libel ruling by the SJC

The state’s Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision today that reaffirms protections for the news media against libel suits.

The case involved a town employee in Abington who was fired after sexually explicit images were discovered on his town-owned computer. The Enterprise of Brockton published a series of stories on official actions taken against the employee (who was eventually fired), based almost entirely on anonymous sources.

The SJC decision, written by Justice Robert Cordy, found that the fair-report privilege, which allows journalists to report libelous statements made in the course of official proceedings, applies even when those reports are based on anonymous sources.

Cordy also ruled that the Enterprise’s stories were substantially fair and accurate despite an error in one of the stories, and that the ex-employee could not sue the paper for intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

Those are the highlights. First Amendment lawyer Robert Ambrogi offers a deeper analysis here. The full text of the decision is here. (Via Universal Hub.)

Still more on SLAPP and libel

Excellent guidance from noted First Amendment lawyer Robert Bertsche.

ACLU lawyer explains libel and SLAPP

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, offers further analysis of how the state’s anti-SLAPP law would modify libel law if journalist-activist Fredda Hollander wins her appeal, now before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” and the anti-SLAPP law is aimed at preventing people from abusing the legal system by hauling activists into court.) Wunsch writes in part:

The defendant, the petitioner, may have made some misstatements that are harmful to the plaintiff’s reputation, but in order to give some breathing space to the right to petition, the law provides that as long as the petitioning wasn’t baseless, the SLAPP suit should be thrown out. Some people might think that is unfair but because society benefits when people aren’t afraid to get involved in local government issues, the statute gives them some extra protection.

To which I would add that though anti-SLAPP protection for journalists might offer them some extra protection against libel suits, the overall effect would probably be slight.

In most cases, I suspect, the person bringing the allegedly abusive suit (in Hollander’s case, North End developer Steven Fustolo) would be deemed a public figure. And under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 Times v. Sullivan standard, a public figure can’t win a libel case unless he’s able to prove that the person he’s suing made false, defamatory statements knowing they weren’t true, or showing reckless disregard for the truth.

My standard disclosure: Hollander paid me to write an affidavit on her behalf at an earlier stage of her case.

Earlier coverage.

Live-blogging the anti-SLAPP hearing

I’m watching the anti-SLAPP hearing here. Background on the case here.

And that’s a wrap. The Supreme Judicial Court will consider the arguments it heard this morning and issue a decision at some later time. It strikes me that the questions were equally tough for both sides — that Harvey Shapiro, the lawyer for journalist-activist Fredda Hollander, and Bruce Edmands, the lawyer for developer Steven Fustolo, were kept on the defensive during their arguments. No way of saying how this will come out.

To repeat my disclosure: I was paid by Fredda Hollander to write an affidavit (pdf) for her during an earlier stage of the case.

10:03 a.m. Edmands says Shapiro is correct that the media are covered in California, but the law is very different. If Shapiro wants anti-SLAPP protection extended to the media in Massachusetts, Edmands says, then “the correct forum is not this court, respectfully, but the Legislature.”

10:01 a.m. What about letters to the editor? asks one of the justices. Isn’t that petitioning? “It doesn’t have to go directly to the government body. Every official in town reads it,” he says. Edmands responds that letters are “widely understood to be expressions of opinion by the author,” unlike “factual” news stories.

The justice follows up by asking if the publisher wouldn’t be “petitioning” by publishing the letter. Edmands replies that it would be, but that the publisher should be treated differently from a reporter.

9:57 a.m. Edmands says the anti-SLAPP statute has never been extended to the media. It’s pointed out to him that a Superior Court decision did just that. “Don’t knock the Superior Court,” says one of the justices. “Some of us are graduates of the Superior Court.”

9:55 a.m. To clarify — Hollander and her husband, Bill Lee, were active in a North End neighborhood organization. She contends that her journalism for the Regional Review was an extension of that activism.

9:53 a.m. Justice asks what about a newsletter editor railing about an issue to his or her members. Edmands reponds that that would be closer to petitioning activity, but that’s not what Hollander did.

9:52 a.m. Edmands: “I think the statute was really intended to protect people who appear before governmental body … and speak out about their concerns.”

9:50 a.m. Now we’re hearing from Bruce Edmands, lawyer for developer Steven Fustolo, who’s suing Fredda Hollander for libel.

9:47 a.m. Justice asks if all investigative reporting would be covered. Purpose is “to cover something that is wrong so that the government will take action.” Shapiro replies that, yes, such reporting would be covered by anti-SLAPP law.

9:46 a.m. Justice asks if any other jurisdiction has adopted Shapiro’s interpretation. Shapiro replies that California anti-SLAPP law covers First Amendment activity. “They have uniformly covered journalists.” But he concedes the California law is broader in terms of activities that are protected.

9:43 a.m. Justice says applying anti-SLAPP to newspaper reporter is “a whole different kettle of fish.” Shapiro responds that “it embraces broader concepts of petitioning.” He adds: “Using the press is a fundamental form of petitioning.”

9:40 a.m. The justices are concerned that Shapiro’s interpretation would obliterate libel if anti-SLAPP can be invoked.

9:39 a.m. The justices question Shapiro about the lack of a personal stake journalists generally have in the stories they cover, whether they express an opinion or not. The idea is that the anti-SLAPP law generally covers only political activists with a stake in the outcome.

9:37 a.m. Justice asks Shapiro if community newspapers should be treated differently from the Globe or the Herald. Shapiro responds that if the reporter is writing in a way that “enlists public support,” then that is “petitioning activity” and should be covered.

9:36 a.m. Harvey Shapiro, lawyer for Fredda Hollander, is arguing before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court right now.

My affidavit in the anti-SLAPP case

Fredda Hollander, an activist-journalist who will appear before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court on Monday, has given me permission to post the affidavit (pdf) I wrote for her at an earlier stage of her case. It’s a public document, but given that I was paid to write it, I wanted to check in with her first.

The issue at stake is fairly complicated, and really doesn’t have all that much to do with libel, even though her claim is related to a libel suit filed against her. A North End developer, Steven Fustolo, is suing Hollander for libel in connection with articles she wrote for a local newspaper, the Regional Review. Hollander counters that she did not libel Fustolo, and that his suit is a form of harassment covered by the state’s anti-SLAPP law. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

The anti-SLAPP statute — similar to ant-SLAPP laws in other states — is designed to protect political activists from being harassed by their well-heeled targets, who can afford to abuse the legal system as a form of intimidation. The law specifically states that “petitioning” activity is protected. Hollander’s lawyer, Harvey Shapiro, argues that the grassroots advocacy journalism Hollander engaged in qualifies as “petitioning” in the sense that she was attempting to influence government decisions.

The implications for bloggers and citizen journalists are potentially huge. Not only are such folks frequently motivated by their strong opinions on local issues, but they are far more vulnerable to being damaged by a meritless libel suit than would an established news organization. (Please note that I am not saying Fustolo’s suit is meritless. I am merely saying that, if it is, then Hollander deserves to be able to use the anti-SLAPP law in order to persuade a judge to dismiss his claim.)

Unfortunately I will not be able to attend Monday’s argument because of a family matter. Assuming all systems are go, I’ll be watching the webcast instead.

An activist-journalist SLAPPs back

Adam Gaffin has posted an excellent summary of an important press-freedom case that will be argued before the state’s Supreme Judicial Court on Monday.

Fredda Hollander, an activist-journalist who once wrote for a local newspaper called the Regional Review, is arguing that a libel suit filed against her by a North End developer should be thrown out on the grounds that it amounts to harassment illegally aimed at silencing her.

The developer, Steven Fustolo, counters that the law on which Hollander is basing her claim — a state law that bans “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — was never intended to protect journalists.

Disclosure: I was a paid expert for Hollander, writing an affidavit arguing that community-based advocacy journalism should be protected under the so-called anti-SLAPP law.

Libel battle won, but war remains lost

A battle has been won over a bizarre and dangerous decision by a federal appeals court earlier this year that truth may not be a defense in libel cases brought by private parties. Unfortunately, the war remains lost.

According to lawyer Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, a jury found recently that the office-supply chain Staples did not act with malice when a manager sent an e-mail to some 1,500 employees informing them he had fired a sales manager named Alan Noonan for violating the company’s travel and expense policies. (Ambrogi points to an article in the National Law Journal, but it’s subscription-only.)

As I reported earlier this year in the Guardian, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Boston, ruled that Noonan’s libel suit against Staples could proceed even though the contents of the e-mail were true. The court relied on an old provision of Massachusetts libel law pertaining to “actual malice,” which Judge Juan Torruella wrote should be defined as “ill will” or “malevolent intent.” Torruella earned a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award for his anti-First Amendment decision.

Although Staples may not spring immediately to mind when one thinks about freedom of the press, the implications for the news media are obvious.

In the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of Times v. Sullivan, actual malice is defined as pertaining to a defamatory statement made with knowing falsity, or with “reckless disregard” for the truth. And though Times v. Sullivan applies solely to public officials, a series of subsequent decisions by the Court made it clear that a defamatory statement can never be found libelous if it is true — a principle asserted by free-speech advocates since the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger.

First Amendment lawyers such as Ambrogi and Robert Bertsche wrote that Torruella should have thrown out the Massachusetts law, on the books since 1902, as unconstitutional in light of Times v. Sullivan.

So far, though, Torruella’s toxic handiwork remains in effect — at least in Massachusetts.

Torturing the language

Civil-liberties lawyer and friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate explains in the Guardian why the Washington Post is wrong to claim that it can’t use the word “torture” because of libel concerns.

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.