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Court Puts Onus On Journalists

The Supreme Court declined Monday to consider whether journalists have constitutional protections allowing them to safely report defamatory comments made by public figures, so long as the comments are described in a neutral way.

Without comment, justices let stand a state court ruling in favor of two Parkesburg, Pa., officials who sued over a 1995 article in the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa. As a result, journalists publishing in Pennsylvania will need to scrutinize public statements more closely for truth or face potential liability.

The Daily Local News article described borough Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. as "strongly implying" council president James B. Norton III and Mayor Alan M. Wolfe to be "queers and child molesters," according to the state ruling. The article described Norton and Wolfe as denying the charges and calling the comments "bizarre" and "sad."

A jury ordered Glenn to pay the two men $17,500 in damages for defamation but found that reporter Tom Kennedy, then-editor William Caufield and newspaper owner Troy Publishing Co. were not liable, partly because of the trial judge's instruction on the so-called neutral reportage privilege.

That privilege, recognized by some state and federal courts, lets the press convey a reputable public figure's defamatory comment as long as it is reported neutrally and accurately.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that no such privilege exists under U.S. or Pennsylvania constitutions. It ordered a new trial to decide the journalists' liability under an "actual malice" standard that asks whether the defamatory statements were published with reckless disregard for the truth.

The appeal by the Pennsylvania newspaper was backed by more than a dozen media organizations and advocates, including The Associated Press, who argued the ruling will unconstitutionally chill news coverage of political campaigns where charges and countercharges are commonplace.

For example, they argued, journalists in the 2004 presidential campaign could not have safely reported or discussed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth political ads disparaging Sen. John Kerry's military service, or charges about President Bush's former National Guard service, if they doubted their validity — even if they had interviewed others who disagreed.

"It is the citizens' right to hear what their elected representatives have to say about their adversaries unvarnished, to evaluate the merits of those statements, and to make their own decisions about their import," the media groups wrote in a joint friend-of-the-court filing.

The case is Troy Publishing Co. v. Norton and Wolfe, 04-979.

In other action:

  • The Supreme Court rejected an appeal Monday to reinstate a state law requiring girls under age 18 to get parental consent for abortions except under the most dire of medical emergencies. Without comment, justices let stand a lower court ruling that struck down the Idaho law because its provisions on emergency abortions were too strict.
  • Justices declined to review a lower court ruling that ordered the Virginia State Police to release files relating to a murder that wrongly sent a man to death row. Without comment, the Supreme Court let stand a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of Earl Washington Jr. The Richmond-based court ruled that police must unseal most of the files relating to an investigation of the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19, in Culpeper, Va.