NJ Supreme Court Rules media can't be sued for accurately reporting pretrial documents

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The Bergen Record (a screenshot of its logo was taken from its Facebook page) was sued for defamation by Thomas Salzano for publishing information from pretrial court documents.

In a split decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that media outlets cannot be sued for reporting from pretrial court documents, even if the information turns out to be false, Statehouse Bureau reported May 11.

The ruling overturned a 2008 appeals court ruling, which found The (Bergen County) Record “libelous for its reporting of a lawsuit” in a March 2006 story, The Associated Press reportedThe Record ran a story March 2, 2006 that was headlined “Man Accused of Stealing $500,000 for High Living,” Leagle.com reported.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and Statehouse Bureau reported that The Record had reported Thomas Salzano of Glen Ridge allegedly misappropriated $500,000 money from his father’s now defunct telecommunications company, NorVergence. Salzano sued The Record for libel and said the claim was not true, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.  Salzano found out he was being accused through the newspaper, Statehouse Bureau reported.

“I was put on no notice of this whatsoever. My notice was reading in the newspaper that I was accused of stealing $500,000,” Statehouse Bureau reported Salzano told New Jersey Supreme Court justices in October 2009.

Leagle.com reported the Salzano sued for defamation, gross negligence and invasion of privacy.  Leagle.com also reported that he was asking for a retraction, costs, and presumed, consequential, compensatory and punitive damages.  Leagle.com wrote that Salzano’s side argued that there must be “some ‘judicial action’ to trigger” fair reporting privileges, so the privilege can’t apply to pretrial documents.

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, a lower court “tossed out” his lawsuit, but then the appeals court ruled in his favor.  Statehouse Bureau reported Oct. 14, 2009 that the appeals court decided “media outlets should not be allowed to publish material from pretrial filings and may be sued in the allegations are determined to be false.”

At the time, Statehouse Bureau reported that the New Jersey Press Association’s general counsel, Tom Cafferty, said that the appeals court decision “has deprived the media of the ability to perform its traditional function of acting as the eyes and the ears of the public when reporting on judicial procedure.”

The Record and other news organizations appealed to the Supreme Court, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Statehouse Bureau reported.

“The state Supreme Court today ruled news organizations that present full, fair and accurate reports based on court documents cannot be held liable for those items — even if they turn out to be incorrect,” Statehouse Bureau reported. Leagle.com reported the court wrote that the fair report privilege “recognizes the value we place on the right of the public, in a democratic society, to be informed about a wide variety of official matters.”

“‘Because members of the public cannot attend every single court case or review every filing, it is critical that the press be able to report fairly and accurately on every aspect of the administration of justice without fear of having to defend a defamation suit and without the inhibitory effect of such fear,’ the court said in prepared comments accompanying the split decision,” Statehouse Bureau reported.

Reporters’ privilege only covers information accurately found in lawsuits, The Associated Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer noted.  Statehouse Bureau reported that Salzano could still sue for any published defamatory information that came from outside of court documents.  Leagle.com reported the court wrote that the fair report privilege “is conditional insofar as it attaches only to full, fair, and accurate reports of government proceedings” and is absolute under those conditions.

The Associated Press reported that “a lawyer for The Record had argued that requiring journalists to prove the truth of a lawsuit allegation would be ‘riddled with difficulties’ for the First Amendment.”

New Jersey Court rulings regarding libel have been in the news lately. StinkyJournalism reported May 1 that a New Jersey appeals court ruled that blogger Shellee Hale is not a journalist, and therefore, is liable for defamatory comments on a porn industry Web site, Oprano.com.  Hale says she was researching for an investigation and report, but the New Jersey appeals court said she isn’t protected by reporters’ privileges.

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NJ Supreme Court Rules media can’t be sued for accurately reporting pretrial documents

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