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Legal Hotline - Defamation


CAUTION: Because the law is constantly evolving, it is important before relying upon any opinion on this website that you check with the hotline counsel to ascertain whether or not there has been any subsequent change or supplementation to the law since the date of the opinion.

Answers provided by NJPA's Legal Counsel.

 

Dec. 5, 2003

Question:
Are republications of statements in a filed complaint protected from libel actions?
Answer:
They are privileged if an answer has been filed and the republication is full, fair and accurate.

 

Oct. 31, 2003

Question:
Can the newspaper report allegations contained in a complaint filed in court?
Answer:
If only the complaint was filed and no answer had as yet been filed, the newspaper would not be protected from a libel action for republication of the allegations of the complaint. The courts have declined to protect complaints because any individual could file a complaint to publicize allegations and then withdraw the complaint once the public learned of the allegations. Because there is too much room for abuse, complaints are not protected until an answer has been filed. In the case of criminal complaints, protection probably would not flow to the newspaper until a court made a finding of probably cause.

April 8, 2003

Question:
Is a newspaper protected from suit when it republishes the contents of a civil complaint?
Answer:
There is some case authority that suggests the newspaper must provide the defendantís position as well. There is concern that persons will abuse the system by filing a complaint just to get the allegations into the press and then withdraw the complaint. Therefore, if the newspaper wishes to publish the allegations in the complaint, it should seek to get a comment from the defendant(s) or their attorney or wait until the defendantís file an answer and include the contents of the answer as well.

Aug. 16, 2002

Question:
A local hotel was recently the subject of a story in the newspaper because of the high number of complaints with the local consumer protection board. The newspaper is now receiving letters to the editor which recount problems encountered at the hotel by various persons. Is there a threat of libel if the newspaper publishes these letters?
Answer:
Yes. A newspaper will be held responsible for the contents of letters to the editor it publishes.

May 15, 2001

Question:
What is the standard of proof in a libel action by a private individual?

Answer:
A private person need only prove negligence to sustain a defamation action.

July 26, 2000

Question:

The newspaper has received a letter to the editor accusing a local business of bigotry. If the newspaper prints the letter will it be open to a libel suit?

Answer:

Yes. As the re-publisher of the libel the newspaper is open to litigation the same way it would be if the newspaper made the statement in a news article. In this circumstance the parties are probably private individuals, as opposed to public officials or public figures, and therefore the plaintiff would only have to prove the newspaper was negligent in publishing. For example, not investigating the facts may be sufficient for a jury to find negligence.

March 27, 2000

Question:

May a newspaper be held liable in defamation for a letter to the editor?

Answer:

Yes. Both the original author and the newspaper as a re-publisher of the statement are open to a defamation action. See the New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Kotlikoff v. The Community News, 89 NJ 62 (1982).

July 14, 1999

Question:

Received a call advising that the paper was running a web page asking for comments regarding points of interest in the local communities for visitors--i.e., a tourist information Web page. The paper's concern was that somebody might upload a piece of information about a local business or the like which is negative; and in that event the paper would be concerned as to whether or not it would be subject to liability exposure for republication of a defamatory statement.

Answer:

In researching the developing but scarce legal decisions on this issue, we advised that the case law seems to be developing along the lines of the following: if the web page owner exercises editorial control over what is uploaded by various contributors, then it assumes the same responsibility, as would any newspaper in printing letters to the editor -- i.e., the ordinary rules of republication makes the re-publisher stand in the shoes of the original author of the defamatory statement. However, where the front page operator/owner does not exercise any control whatsoever over the content of the uploading contributors, then it stands in the shoes of a bookstore or a library -- where the owner is not liable for the contents of the books that pass through its shelves. That is not deemed to be a republication; the books are simply being made available for access and the bookstore owner or library owner is not liable for the contents of the books.

 

April 13, 1998

Question:

The newspaper has documented evidence that a local resident is involved with an extremist right wing group. When approached, the resident denies any knowledge of the group. May the newspaper still note the connection in a story about the local activities of the group?

Answer:

When the newspaper presents a fair and accurate report of events it is protected from suit. So long as the newspaper reports the denial along with the evidence that contradicts the denial it has a defensible position.

April 13, 1998

Question:

May a local Board of Education bring a suit against the newspaper based upon letters to the editor critical of the Board?

Answer:

The newspaper is responsible as the re-publisher of all statements contained in the letters to the editor it prints. So long as the opinions expressed in the letter to the editor are opinions and the letters are not presenting false facts the newspaper cannot be successfully sued for defamation.

 

The Hotline is operated by NJPA's General Counsel, Tom Cafferty of Gibbons P.C.  Cafferty has served in this capacity for more than 30 years and has extensive First Amendment and communication law expertise. The Hotline is available to all publications that are active members of the New Jersey Press Association.

To reach the Hotline:

Call (973) 596-4863 The regular hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but callers may leave a recorded message 24 hours per day on a dedicated voice-mail line. The Hotline attorneys will return all calls as soon as possible.
Fax: (973) 639-6267  
Write: NJPA Legal Hotline, c/o Gibbons P.C., One Gateway Center, Newark, NJ 07102-5310

E-mail: tcafferty@gibbonslaw.com

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New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) is a non-profit membership association formed to advance the interests of newspapers and to increase awareness in the benefits of newspaper readership. The mission of NJPA is to help newspapers remain editorially strong, financially sound and free of outside influence. We will pursue these goals in every way possible, as a service both to our members and to the people of New Jersey.

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