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Judge Dismisses Mayor's Libel Suit

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Judge Dismisses Mayor's Libel Suit

Article excerpt

A RECENT WEST Virginia libel case has all the makings of a country music tune: The headline said she lied, but the body copy didn't; the mayor wants a ruling, but the judge said can't win it.

Using stronger words in a newspaper headline than a source uses in the text of a news story is "not sufficient to show actual malice," according to a West Virginia judge.

"Newspapers are not required to use the least offensive terminology in reporting the news," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Staker. "Neither are they required to accept a public official's characterization of events as the truth."

Staker's opinion accompanied his dismissal of a libel case against the Gannett River States Publishing Corp. and its Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, W.Va., brought by Barboursville Mayor Nancy Cartmill.

The mayor sued over a headline in the newspaper that read "State says mayor lied about plans."

The article described how the mayor had told citizens that village authorities had called for state safety inspections of an old building that was to be torn down. In fact, the inspections came at the direction of the state.

The article quoted local residents and state officials who contradicted the mayor's assertion.

According to court documents, the mayor argued that the paper should have reported the two sides disagreed, not that she lied, which "defamed her by asserting that she deliberately intended to deceive the public."

The court found that Cartmill, because of her status as mayor, is a public figure who must prove actual malice -- knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth -- to prevail.

The mayor, Staker noted, "offers no evidence to indicate that the story is false. Rather, she argues mainly that the headline is an unfair and misleading summary of the article it accompanies."

However, Staker continued, "The newspaper's headline indicating that the mayor had lied about the inspection arrangements was a legitimate inference to be drawn from the facts at hand.

"It was not the only inference; it was not the most charitable inference; it was perhaps not the most accurate inference; but it was a reasonable inference to be drawn from the facts involving the Barracks Building dispute," the judge found. …

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