Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Upside-Down Libel Law

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Upside-Down Libel Law

Article excerpt

Tennessee's Supreme Court chooses to sit on the bench, silently, as appeals court reverses more than three decades of precedent

When a Tennessee state legislator sued her hometown paper for libel three years ago, the action had "nuisance suit" written all over it. As soon as he was asked, the trial judge dismissed the lawsuit on summary judgment, noting what was evident to any fair-minded reader: The newspaper had published a true and fair news account of a sheriff's deputy's claim that he saw the politician and her husband tearing down campaign posters. The paper's glancing mention of the incident in an editorial, the judge said, was clearly protected opinion. And the legislator had not met a public figure's burden to show the paper acted with so-called "actual malice," that is, that it published something untrue or with reckless disregard to its truth.

But that was not the end of Tennessee Rep. Mae Beavers' $1.3- million lawsuit against The Lebanon Democrat, a daily with a sworn circulation of 8,955. Instead, the case has lurched on from court to court as a slowly accelerating nightmare that now threatens to turn libel law upside down for all Tennessee papers.

A Tennessee appeals court panel did the worst damage last November, when it reinstated the complaint against the editorial. Ignoring federal and state precedent dating back to the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan decision, the court threw out the clear-headed summary judgment and turned the burden of libel law on its head by demanding, in effect, that the newspaper prove its editorial was not written with actual malice. …

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