BOSTON — The state's highest court yesterday rejected a reporter's request to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by a developer, finding that the reporter was not covered by a Massachusetts law designed to protect citizens against lawsuits for exercising their right to petition the government.
The Supreme Judicial Court said the law against "strategic lawsuits against public participation" did not protect Fredda Hollander, a reporter for a community newspaper in Boston's North End, from the lawsuit filed in August 2006 by Steven Fustolo, a North End real-estate developer.
The high court ruled in Fustolo v. Hollander that Hollander, who was also a longtime North End community activist, wrote articles about Fustolo as a paid journalist, not as a citizen activist.
Fustolo claimed Hollander's articles in May and June of 2006 defamed him and inflamed community opposition so much that he was forced to withdraw his development plans later that year.
Some said the ruling, which allows Fustolo's defamation lawsuit against Hollander to move forward in court, could have a chilling effect on journalists.
"The protections of the ... statute that we felt were very important are not available, under this opinion, to a news reporter because of this pretense that it's all neutral and objective, and therefore, you are not petitioning the government to bring about change that you want," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
The court said the common law of defamation gives reporters protection for both opinions and reports of public meetings of government bodies and other organizations.
Justice Margot Botsford, writing for the court in the unanimous ruling, said there was no reason to extend the anti-lawsuit statute "beyond its appropriate boundaries" to provide reporters protection beyond those to which they were entitled under the defamation law.
Hollander's attorney, Harvey Shapiro, said he argued that even if Hollander wasn't involved in petitioning activity herself, as a reporter for a community newspaper she was a "vital mechanism" to enable local people to speak out — or petition their government — on an issue.
"I think this is obviously not a good decision, in terms of protecting the press, and specifically, protecting the role that they play in facilitating and causing change at the governmental level," Shapiro said.
But Fustolo's attorney, Bruce Edmands, said the ruling would not affect most reporters.
"The SJC has never extended the ... statute to the protection of journalists," Edmands said.