A&A: Can a Newspaper Be Held Liable For How it Described Court Documents in a Story?

Q: We have a question about properly citing Court documents in one of our articles. We ran a story based on court documents and police reports. One of the defendants contacted us saying that we “defamed” him in our article by writing that he had been “convicted” of the crime. His argument is that he plead guilty and therefore was never “convicted.” My question is if we did make any mistake citing these documents, have we possibly opened up ourselves to liability?

A: In California, the law provides protections to the media for accurately reporting on “official” documents and proceedings, such as court records, via the “fair report privilege,” which is codified at Cal. Civ. Code § 47(d).  The privilege generally applies to publicly available government records, official government reports, and statements made by government officials, and provides an absolute privilege where the reporting is a “fair and true” report of court or other official proceedings.  See Green v. Cortez, 151 Cal. App. 3d 1068, 1074 (1984). 

In this situation, your article apparently reports on the court records.  The question here would be whether the reporting was a “fair and true” report of the court documents. To be “fair and true,” the report needs to accurately summarize the gist or sting of the court documents. The Final Disposition says the defendant pled guilty to aggravated assault.  A statement that someone was convicted on a guilty plea should be a “fair and true” summary of the gist and sting of the Final Disposition.

The First Amendment also provides strong protections to news organizations and others that publish information, and defamation claims are difficult to prove.  Defamation, which is also sometimes referred to as libel or slander, is the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one’s reputation caused by a false statement of fact.  In general, the plaintiff has to prove the article is substantially false – i.e., not in a minor way, but in a way that meaningfully changes the meaning.  Consequently, true statements of fact, as well as statements that are opinion (and that therefore cannot be proven false), cannot support a libel or defamation claim.  The crux of a defamation claim is falsity.  Therefore, truth is one of the primary defenses to a libel claim because truthful statements that harm another’s reputation will not create liability for libel.  There are additional defenses as well, including statements that are purely opinion and statements protected by some qualified or absolute privilege. 

It also bears noting that where the plaintiff is considered a “public figure,” he or she would have to prove that the defendant published the allegedly defamatory material with “actual malice,” which is very difficult to prove in court.  Under this standard, the plaintiff must basically show that the defendant knew the material was false, but published it anyway.  New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 283 (1964). 

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries.  In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.