Court: No Libel If Statement Is 'Substantially True'

By Fischer, Howard | AZ Daily Star, September 9, 2017 | Go to article overview

Court: No Libel If Statement Is 'Substantially True'


Fischer, Howard, AZ Daily Star


PHOENIX -- Proof that a statement is "substantially true" is enough to escape being found guilty of libel or slander, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a detailed decision on First Amendment rights, the judges said that someone being sued for defamation "need not prove the literal truth of every detail" of the statement at the heart of the litigation. Instead, they need to show only "that the statements are substantially true" to have the case dismissed.

"Slight inaccuracies will not prevent a statement from being true in substance, as long as the 'gist' or 'sting' of the publication is justified," wrote Judge Paul McMurdie for the three-judge appellate panel, relying on earlier court precedent.

What that means, McMurdie said, is that when the underlying facts are not in dispute, it is up to a court to determine if publishing the literal truth "would have made a material difference to a reader" as compared with the substantial truth. And if there is no indication that is the case, the court concluded, the case has to be thrown out.

Potentially more significant, the ruling affirms the authority of judges to toss such cases without defendants having to go through the time -- and legal expense -- of a full-blown trial.

"We place a higher burden on the plaintiff to show a triable issue because the expense of defending a meritless defamation case could have a chilling effect on free speech," he wrote.

This case surrounds a dispute going back three years between two firms that collect signatures for candidates and ballot measures.

In 2014 Sign Here Petitions, a limited liability company, was working to place a zoning referendum measure on the Phoenix city ballot. It failed after the city clerk disqualified close to 40 percent of the signatures, at least in part because Sign Here used two convicted felons, who are ineligible to circulate petitions, to gather signatures.

Citizens for Fair Dealing had agreed to pay about $71,000 for the work. But the committee withheld about $17,000 of that because of performance issues.

Andrew Chavez, managing member of Petition Partners, posted a series of comments on his Twitter account about the effort, including statements that the other company was "in hot water for using felons," and another that said that "a third of the signatures being collected by Sign Here Petitions are suspected of being collected by felons. …

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