Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Appeals Court Dismisses Libel Case Against Herald

The state Appeals Court today issued an opinion dismissing a libel case brought against the Boston Herald and reporter Michele McPhee. The plaintiff, Edmund LaChance Jr., an incarcerated prisoner, alleged he was libeled by three articles McPhee wrote about online “dating” by incarcerated felons.

The defendants conceded that the articles contained three inaccuracies:
  1. That LaChance had been convicted of manslaughter. In fact, he was convicted of rape, aggravated rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, indecent assault and battery, and assault by means of a dangerous weapon. 
  2. That he claimed in his online ads to be in prison for manslaughter.
  3. That he had committed a “brutal sexual attack on an elderly woman.” 
A Superior Court judge had granted summary judgment dismissing the case and, in today’s opinion, the Appeals Court affirmed that dismissal.

The case is notable for three reasons:
  • The court held that LaChance was a “public figure” for purposes of libel law because, by placing his ads online and making deceptive assertions in those ads, he had injected himself into a matter of public concern, “specifically the dangers of interacting with violent felons online.”
  • Even though the stories contained inaccuracies, they were not “actionably false” within the meaning of libel law because “publication of the plaintiff’s actual criminal record … would have been, at the very least, equally as damaging to the plaintiff’s reputation in the mind of a reader.”
  • The court affirms the applicability of the “fair reporting privilege,” a privilege that protects the publication of information taken from judicial, legislative or other official proceedings. The newspaper’s report that LaChance had committed a sexual assault on an elderly woman was based on the incorrect statement in a court docket that he had committed an “assault and battery on an elderly person.” Because the newspaper had no way of knowing the docket was incorrect, its reporting of that information was privileged, the court said. 
If you’d like to read the full opinion, it is here: LaChance v. Boston Herald.


Princess Brown said...

This is a great example of how hard it is to prove libel. LaChance had to prove that the statements were not only defamatory but false as in Friedman v Boston Broadcasters, Inc. The statement that was truly false was cited in court documents which released the plantiffs from responsibility. The other interesting point of ruling in this case was LaChance being tagged as a public figure. Because of that he had to prove intentional malice like in the case of New York Times Co. v Sullivan. There were other great points to bring out in this ruling but these two interested me most.

Jackalish said...

Media law is a tricky subject at times and particularly Libel. However, the Supreme Court has a lot of precedent that can explain a lot of it. In this case where the incarcerated individual, Edmund LaChance Jr., sued a libel case against the Boston Herald, the appeals court dismissed the case on the grounds that Mr. LaChance was a ‘public figure’. Public figures cannot sue for the same reasons that private persons can. If you are the President of the United States, a Senator, or even a highly paid and very popular actor/actress, you just have to get used to public scrutiny and personal opinion.

One specific libel case was New York Times Vs. Sullivan . The Supreme Court ruled that an individual could sue if they can prove actual malice was the reason behind the publication. In regards to Criminal libel we see in the ruling of Garrison V. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled regarding public person that the libel had to contain proof the defendant was committing defamation by publicly lying. The Court states“ when the defamation of a public official is the basis for a criminal libel suit, the state has to prove actual malice on the part pf the defendant—that is, knowledge of falsity, reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the matter.”

From what I have learned with mass media law, Criminal libel is often called upon and found appropriate for the state to act on behalf of the party injured by the libel and bring criminal charges against the defendant in accordance with State laws. In this case, the plaintiff is Mr. Edmund LaChance Jr. However, the court has found him to be a “public figure”. When dealing with libel and public figures there are a few tests that must be made and legal precedent has set these tests. Many people have to understand that courts don’t go through every case from beginning to end every time. For one, we’d never have or cases heard because of time consumed doing that and secondly, once the Supreme Court defines something, it over rules lower court decisions on the same matter. The Supreme Court has found that an individual who is newsworthy (as previously mentioned with celebrities, presidents etc) because of their status would be a ‘public person’. Mr. LaChance being a ward of the State fits that bill. Furthermore, the newspaper didn’t have any ill will towards LaChance nor did the writer of the article. It was a cut and dry case from the beginning and would have been a waste of taxpayer dollars to pursue.