Dodge Libel Suit by Reporting With
Info From Public Documents

Dear CO-STAR:

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't—this 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

Micah:

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 be fine.

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, were dropped.

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 arrest reports.

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.

© 2004 COSTAR, All Rights Reserved
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