TRENTON, N.J. — The New Jersey Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case that could change the way news-media outlets in the state report about allegations made in a lawsuit before court proceedings have taken place.
In 2008, a state appeals court ruled that The Record of Bergen County could be sued for libel for its reporting about a federal bankruptcy court complaint that alleged a Glen Ridge man misappropriated money from a now-defunct telecommunications company.
The man, Thomas Salzano, sued the newspaper, saying the allegations in the complaint were unfounded. He said the March 2006 story defamed him by reporting that he was "accused of stealing" the money, thereby implying that he was a criminal.
Many of the allegations in the initial complaint were eventually dismissed.
The appeals court said The Record wasn't covered by the state's "fair-report privilege" because the newspaper did not demonstrate the allegations were true or non-defamatory. The privilege allows newspapers to report allegations made in court documents without fear of being sued for defamation.
News-media lawyers argue the newspaper is covered by the privilege because the story accurately and fairly reported the allegations in the lawsuit.
Much of the arguments yesterday focused on whether the newspaper defamed Salzano by using the words "stole" and "stealing" to describe the lawsuit allegations even though those words do not appear in the lawsuit.
Salzano, a real estate agent and oil painter who represented himself at the hearing, said the use of such words implies he is a criminal.
"They way they reported it was not fair. I didn't steal anything," he said. "I just think they should have just acted a little more responsibly."
During yesterday's arguments, Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto chided the news media for not being more thorough and for oversimplifying terms of law.
"With privileges come responsibility," Rivera-Soto said. "Someone within the news organization ought to know what they are reporting about."
Bruce Rosen, who argued the case for North Jersey Media Group, which publishes The Record, said reporters cannot be expected to verify every allegation in a lawsuit. He said reporters are merely "acting as the eyes and ears of the public" — who in many cases can read lawsuits online — and shouldn't be required to prove the truth of an underlying lawsuit allegation.
To require so would be "riddled with difficulties for the First Amendment," Rosen said.
Thirteen other states don't offer protection to reporters who write about initial lawsuit filings, Rosen said, and as a result reporters risk being sued in order to deliver the news.
If the ruling stands, "It will have a chilling effect on the ability of the media to report upon complaints when they are filed," said Thomas Cafferty, a lawyer representing the New Jersey Press Association.
He said the appeals court decision "ignored the need for transparency and public scrutiny of the entire judicial process."
In the story, the newspaper said it tried to reach Salzano but was unsuccessful.
Salzano acknowledged he never asked for a retraction or correction.
"At that time, I was very nervous," said Salzano, who is also representing himself in the bankruptcy case. "When one article after another came out, I just thought it would be better for me to keep quiet."