Exclusion of Journalism Professor's 'Scientific' Testimony Proper

Article excerpt

In mid-July, in a decision designated as "noncitable," the state Supreme Court in Helena affirmed the decision of a trial court in Great Falls that excluded "scientific" testimony from a libel trial. The trial court refused to admit testimony from a journalism professor who claimed to have a scientific method for determining a story's impact on its subject's reputation.

The high court also affirmed the lower court's decision to limit damages in the case to $2,000.

February 1984 edition of the Great Falls Tribune included an article on efforts to establish a grain processing plant in Great Falls, part of a series the newspaper ran on the subject. The article, written by a reporter who was still in high school, stated that Sidney Kurth, an attorney for the company that was trying to establish the plant, was being sought "for at least nine criminal charges." Kurth was also mentioned in some of the other articles in the series.

Almost two years later, Kurth demanded and received a retraction from the newspaper. He also demanded compensation for alleged damage to his reputation, which the newspaper refused to provide.

In January 1986 Kurth sued the Tribune for libel in a state district court in Great Falls, claiming that his reputation as a competent attorney had been seriously damaged by the newspaper's article and that he had suffered substantial economic loss as a result.

The newspaper asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. It argued that, because Kurth deliberately involved himself in a matter of public concern, he should be considered a public figure. As a public figure, the Tribune argued, Kurth would have to prove that the newspaper printed the information about alleged criminal charges either knowing it was false or showing reckless disregard for the truth, a showing the newspaper alleged the attorney could not make.

Kurth replied that while the plant proposal was a matter of public concern, his participation in the project as an attorney for the company did not automatically make him a public figure.

In April 1990, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the newspaper. Kurth appealed, and in January 1991 the state Supreme Court reversed the trial court's decision, finding that the lower court failed to specify with sufficient particularity why Kurth's participation made him a public figure. On remand, the trial court concluded in November 1993 that Kurth was a private individual rather than a public figure.

In further pre-trial proceedings the newspaper objected to a deposition from Maxwell McCombs, a professor in the journalism department of the University of Texas. In his deposition, McCombs discussed the results of a "content" and "agenda setting" analysis he performed on various Tribune stories in which he claimed to have scientifically determined that, because of the context in which it appeared, the erroneous story had a greater impact upon the attorney's reputation than it might otherwise have had. …