Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Professor's Expression of Opinion Upheld

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Professor's Expression of Opinion Upheld

Article excerpt

Professor's expression of opinion upheld

After eight grueling years, an embattled New York University professor has won a case involving opinion and libel and which establishes the primacy of state over some federal libel rulings.

The U.S. Supreme Court June 3 refused without comment to hear an appeal in a libel suit filed by the giant Austrian pharmaceutical firm Immuno AG.

It thus let stand a New York state Court of Appeals decision dismissing the case because it involved expression of opinion protected by state and federal constitutions.

The action ended a legal nightmare endured by Dr. Jan Moor-Jankowski, an NYU professor of research forsensic medicine, director of the school's lab for primate medicine and surgery and unpaid editor of the small but influential and international Journal of Medical Primatology.

The legal monster was bornon January 1983 when Moor-Jankowski received a letter from Dr. Shirley McGreal, chairperson of the South Carolina-based international Primate Protection League.

She criticized alleged plans by Immuno to set up in the African nation of Sierra Leone a research station that she claimed would capture wild chimpanzees, use them to test hepatitis vaccines, then set them free. She feared the released animals would threaten other chimpanzees with hepatitis.

Moor-Jankowski sent a copy of her letter to Immuno asking for comment. In February 1983, the company said it had referred the matter to its New York lawyers. In March, the lawyers denounced McGreal's comments as "wholly inaccurate and reckless" and not fair comment.

If Moor-Jankowski printed the letter without giving the company a chance to reply, the lawyers threatened to sue. The company felt that its reputation and ability to conduct business would be badly damaged.

When nothing further came from Immuno, Moor-Jankowski said, he printed the letter in the Journal's December 1983 issue and pointed out in an editor's note that the company felt McGreal's views were wrong and unfair.

In the meantime, articles about the company's plans had appeared in the Austrian press and in an article in New Scientist in which Moor-Jankowski was quoted as calling the plan "scientific imperialism."

Immuno replied by filing defamation suits against Moor-Jankowski, McGreal, New Scientists, the article's writer and the distributors of both publications. From Moor-Jankowski alone Immuno sought $4 million.

All the defendants except Moor-Jankowski settled as the case dragged on. After six years of litigation, New York state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, dismissed the case in December 1989.

Among those filing friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Moor-Jankowski were the New York Times, Hearst Corp., New York Daily News, Tribune Co., Newsday, Time Inc., Association of American Publishers, Magazine Publishers of America, Capital Cities/ABC Inc., CBS Inc. and NBC.

The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had ruled in early 1990 in what it felt was a similar case involving an Ohio wrestling coach who had sued the Lorain Journal because of statements made by a sports columnists.

In Milkovich v. the Lorain Journal Co., the Supreme Court ruled that opinion should not be considered a "defamation free zone" and that a statement could be libelous if it apparently stated or implied an assertion of fact, despite its context.

In light of that case, the Supreme Court remanded Immuno's appeal to New York's Court of Appeals. …

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