Constitutional Law - Freedom of the Press - Pennsylvania Supreme Court Declines to Adopt Neutral Reportage Privilege

Article excerpt


Lately, it seems as if some politicians have lost the fine art of discretion. Last June, Vice President Dick Cheney, standing on the Senate floor, used profanity during an exchange with Senator Patrick Leahy. (1) During his election campaign, Senator Tom Coburn--in remarks that have been characterized as "weird" even by commentators from his own party--discussed what he described as rampant lesbianism in parts of Oklahoma. (2) Though the media may easily inform the public of incidents like these, it is less clear that news outlets can reprint an outburst by a politician that contains defamatory content, regardless of how much the outburst might inform the public about the elected official making the statement. Recently, in Norton v. Glenn, (3) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused to adopt the neutral reportage privilege, (4) which protects the "accurate and disinterested" reporting of a prominent organization's or individual's serious charge against a public figure "regardless of the reporter's private views regarding [the] validity [of the charge]." (5) In so holding, the court failed to consider properly the context of the reported comments and thereby too easily undermined the media's ability to provide the public with information about the conduct of elected officials--information vital to the effective operation of a democracy.

On April 20, 1995, the Chester County Daily Local ran a story under the headline "Slurs, insults drag town into controversy" that reported on insults lobbed among members of the Parkesburg Borough Council. (6) Specifically, the paper relayed comments made by Council Member William T. Glenn, Sr., about Council President James B. Norton III and Borough Mayor Alan M. Wolfe. (7) As the paper reported, Glenn had issued a written statement strongly implying that Norton and Wolfe were "queers and child molesters" and claiming that Norton had made a sexual advance toward him. (8) The report went on to note that Norton, when informed of these charges, had responded: "If Mr. Glenn has made comments as bizarre as that, then I feel very sad for him, and I hope he can get the help he needs." (9) Following publication of the article, Norton and Wolfe filed suit against Glenn for defamation. (10) They also named as defendants the Daily Local, its owner and publisher, and the author of the article. (11)

At trial, all of the defendants filed motions for summary judgment. (12) The trial court denied Glenn's motion in full and granted the media defendants' motions in part. (13) It held that the media defendants were protected by the neutral reportage privilege; accordingly, "the subjective awareness of the publisher, of the truth or falsity of the statement, [was] irrelevant." (14) Pursuant to this ruling, the jury determined that the media defendants were not liable for defamation. (15) The article, according to the jury, "accurately conveyed the gist of the statements Glenn made and did not imply that the Media Defendants adopted or concurred in those statements." (16) The jury found Glenn liable for defamation and awarded $10,000 in compensatory damages and $7,500 in punitive damages to each plaintiff. (17)

On appeal, the Superior Court vacated the judgment for the media defendants and remanded for a new trial. (18) In reaching this result, the court "focus[ed] on whether the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should adopt the neutral reportage privilege" that the trial court had applied. (19) The court first emphasized that this privilege is not found in the United States Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution, or Pennsylvania statutory law. (20) It then traced the privilege's conception to Edwards v. National Audubon Society, (21) a Second Circuit decision that recognized a privilege for the "accurate and disinterested" reporting of charges against a public figure by a prominent organization or individual, "regardless of the reporter's private views regarding their validity. …


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