Dodge Libel Suit by Reporting
Info From Public Documents
I'm the news editor at out college's paper. A few days ago the
president of our student government association got into some trouble
with the law (a bar fight that got way out of hand). Of course we'd
like to cover the story in our next issue (we're a weekly paper)
but I'm worried about libel. Who knows what the actual facts are?
He hasn't even been charged by the police yet, in fact, maybe he
won'tthis could all go through the campus judicial system.
What if we run a story, then he's cleared of all the charges? Can
he sue us for libel?
Micah, Junior, Private College or University, Connecticut
Well, anyone could sue your paper for libel. They might not have
any case at all, but they can still file the forms and start a lawsuit.
So, no matter what you do, Mr. President can sue you. The more important
question is: if he does decide to sue the paper, will you be able
to end the whole matter quickly and cleanly in your favor?
The answer to that question is: it depends on what kind of sources
you use in your reporting. Rely on first person accounts from witnesses
at the scene and you're probably going to have trouble. But stick
to official police reports and other public documents and you should
Here's why. Almost every state in the country has what's called
a "fair reporting" privilege. Connecticut is no exception.
These privileges protect media outlets from liability for publishing
an article that is "a fair and accurate report of judicial
and official proceedings."
The Connecticut courts recently defined the law pretty clearly
in a 2002 case. A Connecticut newspaper ran a story about two individuals
who were arrested for kidnapping, assault and drug related crimes.
The arrest was based on statements made by the alleged victim. Shortly
after the newspaper ran the story, the victim, who it turns out
was a friend of the people she accused, recanted her story. All
of the charges, with the exception of the drug related offenses,
The paper ran a follow up story, covering the dismissal of the
charges, but they still got sued for libel for the first story.
The court dismissed the case, citing the fair reporting privilege,
because all of the information in the story was based on the police
That case is a lot like yours, so you should take your cues from
what the paper there did. Run the story about your combatant commander-in-chief.
But only include details from the police report and other official
documents. Do not go and do first-hand interviews or editorialize
about what happened. You should also cite the sources of the information
directly in the article.
That way, you'll be well insulated if, god forbid, he does lawyer
up and sue. In fact, no lawyer worth their salt will commence a
suit knowing that you based your article only on public docs.
The material in this column addresses general
legal issues only; is not legal advice and should not be relied
on as such; and may or may not be appropriate to a specific situation.
Laws and procedures change frequently and are subject to differing
interpretations. This column is not intended to create, and does
not create, a lawyer-client relationship and is not intended to
substitute for legal counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.