The right of a free press is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and in Article 1 §7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. However, this does not give people the right to say anything they want or newspapers the right to publish everything they want. Rights of defamed (slandered or libeled) persons are often held by the courts to be more important than other parties' freedom of speech and expression. Care must be taken so the publishing of the news and peoples' opinions do not violate the rights of others and give rise to a cause of action for libel.
Libel occurs when a false and defamatory statement is published which tends to harm a person’s reputation or expose him or her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. It is important to remember that defamation can be in many forms, including articles, headlines, advertising, letters to the editor, sports columns, drawings, opinions, outlines, and photographs.
Avoiding and Handling Libel Complaints
The following, excerpted from pages 3‑4 & 13 of the booklet Synopsis of the Law of Libel and the Right of Privacy, by Bruce W. Sanford, Esq. of Baker, Hostetler and Patterson of Cleveland, Ohio, suggests ways to avoid libel complaints.
How to Avoid Libel and Invasion of Privacy Lawsuits
- Avoid slipshod, indifferent or careless reporting. Whenever a statement could injure someone’s reputation, treat it like fire. The facts of a story should be confirmed and verified, as far as practicable and in accordance with usual news gathering procedures.
- Truth is a defense, but good intention in reporting an untruth is not. Remember, there may be a vast difference between what’s true and what can be proved to be true to a jury. When in doubt as to whether a story is libelous, do not publish or broadcast it until you are sure it is not libelous. Remember, a retraction is not a defense to a libel action but serves merely to mitigate or lessen damages.
- Make reports of arrests, investigations and other judicial or legislative proceedings and records precisely accurate, full, fair and impartial. Use of unsubstantiated information from law enforcement officers has ensnared many reporters in libel lawsuits. Limit comment or criticism to matters of public interest based on facts which are fully stated in the comment and which are true.
- Try to get the “other side of the story.” A good reporter sticks to the facts and not to some bystander’s opinion of what might be the truth if the facts were known. The eventual “write‑up” of a story should be objective and never colored by the enthusiasms or opinions of the reporter.
- Particular care should be taken in publishing quotations. The fact that a person is quoted accurately is not in itself a defense to a subsequent libel action, if the quoted statement contains false information about someone.
- Never “railroad” a story through, but instead write it, check it out and edit it carefully to make sure it is accurate and says precisely what you want to say.
- Avoid borderline cases of invasion of privacy, since the law of the right of privacy is still developing.
- Avoid gossip and the unauthorized use of names and pictures for advertising or other commercial or promotional purposes. Use the name or picture of a person only when identified relative to the subject matter of the publication. Never use unidentified pictures to illustrate social or other conditions, when pictures of people who expressly consent, including professional models or staff members, will suffice and are readily obtainable.
- If an error has been made, always handle demands for retractions that come from a lawyer for a potential plaintiff with the advice of legal counsel. A well meaning but unnecessary or poorly worded correction may actually prejudice a publisher’s or broadcaster’s defenses in a subsequent lawsuit.