The Supreme Court of the United States missed an opportunity last week to send a message that the American people are intelligent enough to read two sides of a nasty political fight and decide who they want to believe.
It's a strange case that's been kicking around the courts now for 10 years, and maybe it will go back to Pennsylvania and die a well-deserved death. But if not, it could have enormous implications on how fee anyone is to discuss issues of public importance.
We'll stipulate here that libel law is a complicated field, made more complicated by the fact that some states (Ohio, for instance) have done a better job of encouraging open debate than others (Pennsylvania, for instance). But that's why it would have been appropriate for the Supreme Court of the United States to step into this case and recognize what we in the business refer to as a neutral reporting privilege.
The case in a nutshell
Ten years ago, the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia, printed a story under the headline & quot;Slurs, Insults Drag Town Into Controversy. & quot; It reported that city council meetings and the aftermath in nearby Parkersburg had degenerated into name-calling, shouting and even fisticuffs.
The most inflammatory language was attributed to Councilman William T. Glenn Sr., who in comments during a meeting and in an interview referred to Mayor Alan Wolfe and Councilman James Norton as "liars" and a "bunch of draft dodgers." He also strongly suggested that they were homosexuals who had put themselves "in a position that gave them an opportunity to have access to children."
Norton was quoted as responding by saying: "If Mr. Glenn has made comments as bizarre as that, then I feel very sad for him, and I hope he can get the help he needs."
Are people entitled to know that one of their elected officials is accusing others of disreputable, perhaps illegal activity, or that one of the officials has called into question the mental stability of his accuser? We'd say yes. A newspaper that didn't report that kind of dysfunction in government would be accused of covering up.
But after considering their options, the mayor and the councilman who were the targets of the charges sued Glenn (apparently he didn't countersue) and added the Daily Local News as a defendant.
In 2000, a trial judge dropped the newspaper from the case and ruled that the councilman had defamed his two colleagues. Glenn was ordered to pay them $17,500 in damages. Their lawyers appealed the dismissal of the newspaper as a defendant and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the libel lawsuit against the reporter, his editor and Troy Publishing Co., which owns the paper.
And now that the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, it will go back to West Chester for a trial. Given that the person who made the libelous remarks was only ordered to pay $17,500, we can't imagine that a reporter, editor and newspaper that not only reported the remarks, but reported a response would be liable for more. It would have been cheaper to settle.
There's much at stake
But the newspaper, and a host of press entities that filed briefs in the case saw a principle was a stake. A principal that a newspaper ought to be able to report factually on an event of public interest and importance without fear of being dragged into court.
If the Daily Local News can be dragged into court for its reporting in this case, who is safe in reporting or saying anything?
This case revolves around a newspaper report, but it is not a newspaper issue. If reporting on the conduct of elected officials is not protected, what protection is there for opponents of John Kerry to question his record of service in Vietnam, or for the opponents of George W. Bush to challenge his record in the Texas Air National Guard? How can newspapers, magazines or radio talk shows report on or discuss the presumed motives behind family members in the Schiavo case, the influence of lobbyists on legislators, an alleged abuse of power by a judge?
The courts in this case -- with the exception of one level-headed lower court judge -- would create a public forum in which no one would feel safe in uttering an uncomplimentary word about anyone except a convicted murderer.
An elected official who is so thin-skinned that he can't handle unflattering remarks from an opponent -- even one who might be a little whacky -- shouldn't run to court, he should go looking for a kinder, gentler pastime than politics.