Silence of the Lambs

Hidden Angle

In April, 1995, a special council meeting of the borough of Parkesburg, Pa., was called to address the infighting and name-calling that routinely disrupted regular sessions. Things got out of hand so quickly that the meeting was adjourned after three minutes.

Then, Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. cornered a reporter for the West Chester Daily Local News and gave him an earful. Council President James Norton and Mayor Alan M. Wolfe were "queers," "liars," "criminals," "draft dodgers" and "child molesters," Glenn told 26-year-old reporter Tom Kennedy.

The next day, Kennedy's story about the meeting was published under a headline reading "Slurs, insults drag town into controversy." The article included brief responses from Norton and Wolfe. Norton told Kennedy: "If Mr. Glenn has made comments as bizarre as that, then I feel very sad for him, and I hope he can get the help he needs."

The mayor and councilman later sued Glenn and the Daily Local News for defamation. In 2000, a jury found that Glenn had defamed Norton and Wolfe, and ordered him to pay them each $17,500 in damages. The jury declined to hold the newspaper liable, after being advised by the trial judge of the doctrine of "neutral reporting privilege."

Under that doctrine, which is recognized in only a handful of state and federal jurisdictions, the press may report a reputable public figure's defamatory comments about another public figure as long as those comments are reported neutrally and accurately.

Edward S. Condra, publisher of the Daily Local News defended his paper's decision to print the remarks. "As far as I'm concerned, the public should be able to learn as much as possible about our elected officials and what they have to say about one another."

Last October, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the concept of neutral reporting privilege, and said the media has no such constitutional protection. (It also reinstated the libel suit against Kennedy and the newspaper.)

Lawyers for more than two dozen of the nation's largest press organizations urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the Pennsylvania case and finally clarify the law. The issue came clearly into focus during the 2004 election with the campaign by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Monday, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the justices declined to hear the matter.

Oddly, with the exception of the Times story by David G. Savage, the decision generated almost zero coverage by the press affected. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which over the years has been an aggressive litigator of First Amendment rights, wrote nothing. An Associated Press story was picked up by a handful of newspapers, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carried a brief article from its Washington bureau.

Absent a Supreme Court ruling, some states (and a few federal jurisdictions) will continue to provide protection for the media. Others, including Pennsylvania, will not, leaving journalists at risk for doing their jobs. An unnamed lawyer involved in the Parkesburg case told Savage that the Supreme Court's inaction "signals the demise of the neutral reporting privilege."

The Pennsylvania high court has ordered a new trial for the West Chester Daily Local News and Kennedy (who no longer works as a journalist), and its ruling leaves the newspaper wide open for civil penalties.

Back in 2003, as the case was wending its way through the courts, Robert C. Heim, a Philadelphia lawyer representing the Daily Local News, told the New York Times, "If you can't tell the public what public officials are saying, you're robbing the public of the essential benefit of the First Amendment."

Newspaper editors across the country ought to be saying exactly the same thing. And alerting their readers to what's going to be lost -- the leeway to report what one party to a public dispute says about another.

--Susan Q. Stranahan

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