The Supreme Judicial Court today heard oral arguments in Howell v. The Enterprise Publishing Co., a defamation case arising out of a series of newspaper articles regarding a town's termination of an employee. The case is particularly important because it could define the scope of the fair report privilege in Massachusetts. You can view a webcast of today's oral arguments at this page. That page also has links to the parties' briefs.
The SJC heard the case on further appellate review from a decision of the Appeals Court. The case involves allegations of defamation against a newspaper that accurately reported on findings made by officials in the town of Abington after conducting two investigatory hearings. The officials twice concluded that plaintiff Howell had used town computers to access images of a "pornographic nature." Even though the newspaper reported these findings accurately, the Appeals Court held that if a jury disagrees that the images were pornographic, the newspaper could be liable for defamation. This is a misapplication of the fair report privilege, which protects news outlets against claims for libel when they report information provided in official government documents or statements.