High court refuses to clarify scope of reporting privilege

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined today to consider whether journalists have constitutional protections allowing them to safely report defamatory comments made by public figures, so long as the comments are described in a neutral way.

Without comment, justices let stand a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in favor of two Parkesburg officials who sued over a 1995 article in the Daily Local News in West Chester. As a result, journalists publishing in Pennsylvania will need to scrutinize public statements more closely for truth or face potential liability.

The article described borough Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. as "strongly implying" that he considered Council President James B. Norton III and Mayor Alan M. Wolfe to be "queers and child molesters," according to the state ruling in in Norton v. Glenn. The article described Norton and Wolfe as denying the charges and calling the comments "bizarre" and "sad."

A jury ordered Glenn to pay the two men $17,500 in damages for defamation but found that reporter Tom Kennedy, then-editor William Caufield and newspaper owner Troy Publishing Co. were not liable, partly because of the trial judge's instruction on the so-called "neutral reportage privilege."

That privilege, recognized by some state and federal courts, lets the press convey a reputable public figure's defamatory comment as long as it is reported neutrally and accurately.

The Pennsylvania high court disagreed, ruling that no such privilege exists under U.S. or Pennsylvania constitutions. It ordered a new trial to decide the journalists' liability under an "actual malice" standard that asks whether the defamatory statements were published with reckless disregard for the truth.

The appeal by the Pennsylvania newspaper was backed by more than a dozen news-media organizations and advocates, including the Associated Press, who argued the ruling would unconstitutionally chill news coverage of political campaigns where charges and countercharges are commonplace.

For example, they argued, journalists in the 2004 presidential campaign could not have safely reported or discussed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth political ads disparaging Sen. John Kerry's military service, or charges about President Bush's former National Guard service, if they doubted their validity — even if they had interviewed others who disagreed.

"It is the citizens' right to hear what their elected representatives have to say about their adversaries unvarnished, to evaluate the merits of those statements, and to make their own decisions about their import," the news-media groups wrote in a joint friend-of-the-court filing in Troy Publishing Co. v. Norton and Wolfe, 04-979.

In other action, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling that ordered the Virginia State Police to release files relating to a murder that wrongly sent a man to death row.

Without comment, justices let stand a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of Earl Washington Jr. The Richmond-based court ruled that police must unseal most of the files relating to an investigation of the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19, in Culpeper, Va.

Washington was joined in his legal fight by The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, the Associated Press and the Virginia Free Press Association.

Ten of the 14 documents at issue were released last November after Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist declined to issue a stay that would have kept the records secret pending appeals. A federal court is reviewing whether the other four documents should be made public.

Police have said that releasing the files would undermine its ongoing investigation into the murder.

The case is Virginia Dept. of Police v. Washington Post, 04-999.