by John C Abell
Florida’s Pensacola News Journal is fighting an $18 million jury award won by a man who alleged that its reference to an unflattering but true incident in his past violated the legal concept of “false light” by alluding to irrelevant, out-of-context facts that caused him pain and suffering.
The St. Petersburg Times reports that the case is about a 1998 story in the Pensacola News Journal about the environmental issues surround a paving company once owned by Joe Anderson. In that story the News Journal reported that Anderson had shot and killed his wife with a 12-guage shotgun while he was on probation for mail fraud, and days after he had filed for divorce. It also reported that Anderson had been cleared of any criminality in the shooting.
At issue is whether any of that was germane.
Anderson sued, claiming the story caused him emotional stress.
The newspaper’s defense is pretty straightforward: it should not be punished for accurate reporting.
Anderson’s $18 million award was overturned on appeal for technical reasons. The matter is now before Florida Supreme Court, which could rule on those narrow grounds or address the fundamental legal issue. A ruling on the merits could have wide reverberations for news organizations in the state of Florida and would almost certainly become a cause célèbre for defenders of press freedom should the justices find against the News Journal.
According to the Times’ reporting of the supreme court session, the justices appear inclined to rule broadly, and seem wary of the plaintiff’s claim.
“… high court justices questioned whether newspapers should be punished for accurate reporting where no malice or reckless disregard of the truth is alleged. They questioned how an editor would be able to determine in advance that true information would inflict actionable damages on an individual.
"’If you can sue somebody for making a true statement, it seems that would be a great impediment to free speech and freedom of the press,’" said Justice Charles T. Wells.
"’Isn't the false light standard awfully vague for the courts and juries to apply with precision?’" asked Justice Harry Lee Anstead. ‘Generally speaking we've been a society that's supposed to have a thick skin, and this is a thin-skinned standard’."
“False light” is similar to “defamation” but more akin to an invasion of privacy. From a legal perspective, it is difficult to see how the regurgitation of a matter of public record would be an invasion of privacy – there can be no reasonable expectation of privacy when there are public records that you were involved in a shooting, had been convicted of mail fraud and had filed for divorce.
But there is the matter of piling on. From a journalistic perspective, did the references to Anderson’s past illuminate the story in a meaningful way? This is a live topic for reporters and editors; even the recent firestorm of criticism against New York Times for its McCain reporting touches on the concept of how you pick and choose among the facts (and assertions) at your disposal to tell the story in the best way possible, and whether you detract from your reporting by straying into accurate but contextually irrelevant territory.
False light is a dicey issue for news organizations because a report doesn’t have to be defamatory to be actionable. The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press defines the concept – and the pitfalls -- this way:
“False light invasion of privacy occurs when information is published about a person that is false or places the person in a false light, is highly offensive to a reasonable person, and is published with knowledge or in reckless disregard of whether the information was false or would place the person in a false light.
“Although this tort is similar to defamation, it is not the same. The report need not be defamatory to be actionable as false light. This type of invasion of privacy tends to occur when a writer condenses or fictionalizes a story, or uses stock footage to illustrate a news story."
Full St. Petersburg Times story here.
Pensacola News Journal reporting on itself here.