NJ Supreme Court rules that newspaper isn’t liable for reporting allegations made in lawsuit

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

NJ court: Accurate lawsuit reporting not libelous

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s highest court ruled Tuesday that a newspaper cannot be held liable for accurate reporting of allegations made in a lawsuit, though a dissenting opinion found that the story in question was unfair to the accused.

The ruling overturned a 2008 decision by an appeals court that found The Record could be held liable for its reporting about a federal bankruptcy court complaint that alleged a Glen Ridge man misappropriated money from a now-defunct telecommunications company.

The man, Thomas Salzano, sued the newspaper, saying the allegations in the complaint were unfounded. He said the March 2006 story defamed him by reporting that he was “accused of stealing” the money, thereby implying that he was a criminal.

Many of the allegations in the initial complaint were eventually dismissed, but the appeals court said The Record wasn’t covered by the state’s “fair report privilege” because the newspaper did not demonstrate the allegations were true or non-defamatory. The privilege allows newspapers to report allegations made in court documents without fear of being sued for defamation.

But the state Supreme Court overturned that finding, ruling that newspapers are not liable as long as they accurately quote allegations in a suit, which it determined the newspaper did.

“The portion of the challenged publications that was based upon a bankruptcy complaint was full, fair, and accurate, and thus, immune from a defamation suit because of the fair-report privilege,” Justice Virginia Long wrote for the majority.

The court was split in its decision. While all six justices who heard the case agreed the fair reporting privilege extends to initial court filings, three justices found that The Record’s article was unfair and shouldn’t be covered by the privilege.

“The privilege itself has roots not only in the First Amendment freedom of the press and our cherished ideals relating to a fully informed public, but, in modern times, has strong ties to our desire to foster openness and transparency in all aspects of our government,” Justice Helen E. Hoens wrote for the dissent.

“But the price to be paid for that shield of immunity must be our insistence that news organizations faithfully, carefully, and accurately perform their role and that they find no refuge in the privilege when the words that they have chosen inflict a greater sting than the truth.”

A lawyer for The Record had argued that requiring journalists to prove the truth of a lawsuit allegation would be “riddled with difficulties for the First Amendment.”

Salzano, a real estate agent and oil painter who represented himself at the hearing, said while he believes in freedom of the press, he doesn’t believe that should allow for unfounded accusations to be printed just because they were alleged in a lawsuit.

“My reputation is still very much damaged,” he said. “I went the way of the courts, and unfortunately I didn’t find relief.”

He said the case provided “a real warning to any private individual.”

“Any lawsuit brought against them is open game for reporters to air a one-sided version of the facts,” he said.

In the story, the newspaper said it tried to reach Salzano for comment but was unsuccessful. Salzano said the newspaper never tried to reach him, but he acknowledged he never asked for a retraction or correction.

The newspaper’s publisher, the North Jersey Media Group, said the appeals court ruling, were it to stand, threatened the way journalists would report on any court matter.

“You could have a public official being accused of a very serious civil or criminal offense, and, by extension of the appeals ruling, the press corps in New Jersey couldn’t write about it because we couldn’t prove it’s true,” NJMG vice president and general counsel Jennifer Borg said.

A lawyer representing the New Jersey Press Association, a nonprofit membership group advancing newspaper interests, called the Tuesday ruling a “crucial decision ensuring the public’s right to know.”

“To take away the fair reporting privilege for reporters would result in a serious delay of the news,” lawyer Thomas Cafferty said.

If the fair reporting privilege had not been in place when New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey and his wife filed for divorce, for example, media would not have been able to report the accusations the pair were making about each in court papers without fear of being sued, Cafferty said.

“You’d effectively have an embargo on critical court news for months,” he said.

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