By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

Hetzel

The Executive Committee of the ONA Board of Trustees has agreed to have ONA be a party to a friend-of-the-court brief in the appeal of a libel case involving Gannett’s Community Press weeklies in Cincinnati.

If a jury ruling in favor of a police officer is allowed to stand, the case will chip away at the long-held “actual malice” standard that is critically important so that journalists can thoroughly report on the conduct of public officials.

The standard, established by the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan, says for a public official to prevail in a lawsuit, the reporter must have either known the information being reported was false or shown a reckless disregard for the truth.

In an Oct. 31 decision upholding a $100,000 jury award, the two-judge majority in the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals even raised questions whether a rank-and-file police officer should be subject to the “actual malice” standard. That is extremely disturbing for the chilling effect that such a finding would have on scrutiny of law enforcement performance and contrary to findings of the Ohio Supreme Court. This is a point noted in a strong dissent by the third judge on the panel, Karen Nelson Moore.

The new appeal seeks a complete review by the full court. We assert that the jury should not and could not have found actual malice on the part of the writer based on her interpretation of the facts available to her.

The case involves a story in the Milford-Miami Advertiser in 2010 about a situation involving a local police officer who allegedly had sex with the city’s mayor. As part of that coverage, the newspaper reported on past incidents involving the police, including a statement that another officer “had sex with a woman while on the job.” That officer, Sgt. James Young, denied the allegation along with other complaints about his conduct, and his 1997 firing was overturned into a 60-day suspension by an arbitrator. The paper’s editor, Theresa Herron, said she based her reporting on the arbitrator’s report.

Besides the ONA, a number of prominent media groups have joined in the amicus, including the Associated Press, Dow Jones, National Public Radio, the New York Times Co. and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

There is no cost to ONA to join, and both of our legal experts, Lou Colombo and Dave Marburger at the Baker Hostetler law firm in Cleveland, supported our engagement.

To read the court opinion, click here.

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