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   Vol. 69/No. 16           April 25, 2005  
U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal of
Pennsylvania case on ‘neutral reporting privilege’
On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a Pennsylvania court’s ruling to stand that restricts the ability of the media in that state to report on statements by public officials without fear of prosecution. The appeal to the high court by the Troy Publishing Co., a newspaper, and a reporter, revolved around their claim of “neutral reporting privilege” in a 1995 defamation suit brought against the West Chester, Pennsylvania, Daily Local News by local city council members.

Dismissing the appeal without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court left standing the October 2004 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that found that “neither the United States nor the Pennsylvania Constitutions mandate adoption of the neutral reportage doctrine.” The neutral reportage standard arose out of court rulings in the 1960s and 1970s that granted the media broad immunity from defamation charges for reporting on the statements—regardless of their truthfulness—of both public officials and those whom the courts described as “public figures.”

Attorneys for more than two dozen of the largest media outlets in the country had urged the Supreme Court to accept Norton vs. Glenn, and to find that accurate news coverage should be shielded from prosecution. “The fact that one public official is saying scurrilous things about another is information the public is entitled to,” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the Associated Press.

The Daily Local News had reported in its April 20, 1995, edition on comments by members of the Parkersburg Borough Council during and after a meeting of the local government body. In the article, titled “Slurs, insults drag town into controversy,” the paper reported on remarks by council member William Glenn after the meeting that implied that the mayor and another member of the council were “queers and child molesters.”

The trial judge in the case ruled that although Glenn may be sued for his statement, the paper could not be held liable for a factual accounting of his comments. In 2000 a jury found Glenn guilty of defamation and awarded each plaintiff $17,500 in damages.

The plaintiffs then appealed the dismissal of charges against the paper. In 2002 they won a favorable ruling and an order for a trial against the paper from a state Superior Court.

In its October 2004 decision upholding the Superior Court ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court drew a sharp distinction between the “fair report privilege” and the neutral reportage privilege. “The fair report doctrine,” Chief Justice Ralph Cappy wrote for the state court, “is a common-law privilege protecting media entities which publish fair and accurate reports of governmental proceedings. At issue here, however, is whether there is a constitutional privilege to publish accounts of statements that were not made in the course of official proceedings.”

Under such conditions, the court ruled, the “actual malice” doctrine applies. This legal standard allows public officials or figures to sue for defamation if they can prove a media report was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

The Supreme Court’s refusal to accept the appeal means the charges of defamation against the Daily Local News will go to trial.
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