CONCORD, N.H. The state Supreme Court yesterday reversed a lower court ruling that a career criminal is "libel-proof" in other words, that his reputation was already so bad that even false statements about him in a newspaper article couldn't make it much worse.
The ruling means that Terry Thomas, who is serving a sentence for receiving stolen property, according to the state prison Web site, can proceed with a libel lawsuit against The Telegraph and police from New Hampshire and Massachusetts quoted in the article.
A professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston could not be sued because she was expressing an opinion, the court said in yesterday's ruling in Thomas v. Telegraph Publishing Co.
The Telegraph had argued Thomas was libel-proof for two reasons: that he already had such a lengthy criminal record that even false statements could not damage his reputation further, and that any disputed statements in the article did not add to the damage inflicted by true statements in the same article.
The high court, which said it had never considered the issue before, said some plaintiffs can be found libel-proof for the first reason, but only if they were already notorious because of widespread publicity about their crimes. In Thomas' case, there was no major reporting of his previous crimes, the court ruled.
"Criminal convictions alone are not enough to justify application of the doctrine," the court said.
The court declined to decide the second question, saying Thomas had challenged more than half the statements in the article and that while some of the disputed statements apparently were true, the lower court had not decided whether others were false, statements of opinion or protected by the fair-reporting privilege.
It sent the case back to the lower court for further action, first giving guidance on some of those other issues.
The Telegraph had also argued it could not be sued for publishing any statement by police about what officers had learned during their investigations, or publishing information from police records.
The high court upheld the lower court ruling, which said publication of police statements and records are covered by the fair-reporting privilege only when they are part of an official action, such as an announcement of an arrest, a court hearing or a court record.
It overturned the lower court on another point, however. The trial judge had ruled that in general, police officers can be sued for making false statements about someone if they did not involve "important information" for the news media.
The high court said that standard was too strict, finding that the judge should consider only whether any false statements by police were made "in good faith, for a justifiable purpose" such as informing the public about law enforcement activities and methods, and "with a belief founded on reasonable grounds of its truth."
False and malicious statements by police are not protected, the court said.