Ala. ruling reaffirms: Journalists can report rumors

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has reaffirmed that a journalist can report rumors about a public official’s government duties without investigating the truth of those rumors.

In the case, Little v. Consolidated Publishing Co., the court granted summary judgment on May 13 to the publisher of The Anniston Star on claims brought by Benjamin Little, an Anniston city councilman and minister.  Little sued the newspaper after it reported a new councilman’s complaint that a human-resources audit recommended by Little and obtained by the city had been conducted poorly.  The new councilman, John Spain, also questioned whether Little had a personal relationship with Yolanda Jackson, the human-resources consultant who performed the audit.

In the article, the newspaper reported that:

“Spain also said there is a buzz in the city that Little had or has a personal relationship with Jackson and that’s why he pushed for her hiring last year.

“‘If this is not the case, it’s very unfair to Councilman Little,’ Spain said.  ‘If there is substance to it, it needs to be disclosed.’

“Little, who is not married, said he is not involved personally with Jackson.

“‘I know a lot of people,’ he said.  ‘But I’ve never had a relationship with that girl.  And if I did have a relationship with her, that wouldn’t relate to the city anyway.’

“Several attempts to reach Jackson this week failed.”

In response to Little’s suit, the newspaper insisted it simply had reported Spain’s statement and the existence of the rumor, and that it was not obligated to investigate whether the rumor was true.  Indeed, at Little’s request, the newspaper ran a clarification asserting that “it has not (alleged) and is not alleging that such a relationship exists or that such rumors have a factual basis.”

After considerable fact-finding, the trial court granted the newspaper’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the reporter’s failure to investigate the truth of the rumor did not establish that the newspaper had published the article with constitutional malice — that is, with knowledge the article was false or with reckless disregard as to whether the article was true.

Key to the court’s holding was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in St. Amant v. Thompson, in which the court stated that constitutional malice is shown only if the reporter “in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.”

“[F]ailing to investigate the truth behind Spain’s assertions as to why he was requesting an investigation into the audit in the manner Little believed should have been done before the article was published is insufficient to demonstrate that [the reporter] acted with reckless disregard for the truth,” the Alabama court concluded.

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