Newspaper Client Wins Summary Judgment Based on Fair Report Privilege

FLB Law      Aug. 10, 2015

On July 20, 2015, Judge Emil Giordano of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County issued an Opinion and Order granting summary judgment in favor of The Express-Times newspaper, dismissing claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. The case involved allegations by a regular candidate for local office and blogger who claimed that the newspaper’s reports about her were defamatory and portrayed her in a false light.

At issue were two news stories relating to charges for harassment and a private criminal complaint filed against the plaintiff. The newspaper and its on-line affiliate defended on the basis of the fair report privilege, which insulates the media from liability for accurate reports of official records and proceedings, provided that the reporting does not materially change the “gist” or “sting” of the underlying official action. In this case, the Court found that the reporting was accurate and thus protected.

The newspaper also raised First Amendment defenses to the complaint, arguing that in the absence of proof of “actual malice” the media is protected by the First Amendment in the exercise of its Constitutionally-protected right of free speech. Due to its disposition of the case on state law grounds, the Court did not need to reach the First Amendment arguments.

Doug Smillie, head of the firm’s litigation group, represented The Express-Times. “The protections afforded the media under the Frist Amendment’s guarantee of a fee press are substantial and, at the same time, vital to protect the open debate characteristic of a democracy. While individuals sometimes feel aggrieved by news reports which are embarrassing or unflattering, those personal feelings must yield to a robust press which facilitates public debate. As an adjunct to the First Amendment, the fair report privilege allows newspapers and other media to report on official actions, records and proceedings without fear of liability.” Doug regularly represents The Express-Times in litigation.

Doug was assisted by Gretchen Geisser, an associate in the firm’s litigation department.

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