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Quote Alterations and Libel: U.S. Supreme Court Says Altering Quotes Is Libelous Only If It Changes the Meaning of the Statement Made by the Quoted Person

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Quote Alterations and Libel: U.S. Supreme Court Says Altering Quotes Is Libelous Only If It Changes the Meaning of the Statement Made by the Quoted Person

Article excerpt

Quote alterations and libel

Altering a quote is not necessarily grounds for a libel action, unless the changes give a different meaning to the statement, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The Court's decision in Jeffrey M. Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. and Janet Malcolm found that "writers and reporters by necessity alter what people say, at the very least to eliminate grammatical and syntactical infelicities.

"If every alteration constituted the falsity required to prove actual malice, the practice of journalism, which the First Amendment standard is designed to protect, would require a radical change, one inconsistent with our precedents and First Amendment principles."

Masson filed suit after a two-part article written by Malcolm appeared in the New Yorker in December 1983. The article was later expanded and published as a book by Knopf.

Malcolm had spent many hours with Masson, interviewing him about his relationship with the Sigmund Freud Archives, from which he was fired after publicly breaking from Freud's theories.

During the fact-checking process and again after the articles appeared, Masson contended that certain quotations attributed to him were false. An examination of some 40 hours of taped interviews revealed that a number of statements attributed to Masson in quotation marks were not evident on the tapes.

Malcolm said those statements had come from other discussions with Masson, during which she took notes.

Masson's libel action stemmed from his contention that the quotes not only were published with a reckless disregard for the truth but also that the nature of the quotes was defamatory.

The California trial court granted summary judgment to the media defendants and the decision was upheld by the state court of appeals.

"The constitutional question we must consider here is whether, in the framework of a summary judgment motion, the evidence suffices to show that respondents acted with the requisite knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard as to truth or falsity," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the 7-2 decision. "This inquiry in turn requires us to consider the concept of falsity .... We must consider whether the requisite falsity inheres in the attribution of words to the petitioner he did not speak ....

The Court rejected "the idea that any alteration beyond correction of grammar or syntax by itself proves falsity in the sense relevant to determining actual malice under the First Amendment," Kennedy wrote. "An interviewer who writes from notes often will engage in the task of attempting a reconstruction of the speaker's statement ....

"The existence of both a speaker and a reporter; the translation between two media, speech and the printed word; the addition of punctuation; and the practical necessity to edit and make intelligible a speaker's perhaps rambling comments, all make it misleading to suggest that a quotation will be reconstructed with complete accuracy ....

"If an author alters a speaker's words but effects no material change in meaning, including any meaning conveyed by the manner or fact of expression, the speaker suffers no injury to reputation that is compensable as a defamation," the Court found.

"We conclude that a deliberate alteration of the words uttered by a plaintiff does not equate with knowledge of falsity ... unless the alteration results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement."

The Supreme Court determined that the case should be returned for a jury trial to determine whether "Malcolm published the statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of the alterations. …

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