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Federal Judge Stands Up for Press Freedoms in the Age of Assault on the Media

by | May 30, 2019 | Media Law

After thoughtful review of the evidence and careful consideration, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida dismissed a defamation suit against Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Eric Lipton.

A former professor at the University of Florida and a vocal proponent for the benefits of GMO crops, scientist Kevin Folta cited 32 statements within Lipton’s 2015 article investigating Monsanto’s ties with the scientist and the academic community in relation to GMOs. He said the article falsely alleged he received unrestricted research grants from the genetically modified crop giant, and he sought at least $75k in compensation for lost money in speaking engagements and damage to his reputation.

So, how did Judge Walker reach the decision to dismiss? There were several factors, all stemming from Florida’s Fair Reporting Privilege.

Reason 1: Factual Reporting is Protected

Judge Walker found that 31 of 32 statements Folta claimed defamed him were covered by Fair Report Privilege because they reported “accurately on information received from government officials.”

The Court accepted that all but one of the suit’s statements were factually true, derived from documented materials (emails from the former professor’s own university email account). Therefore, they were not susceptible to defamatory meaning.

The fair report privilege started in a common law interest to protect the publication of fair and accurate reports of judicial, legislative, executive, and administrative proceedings. A substantially correct account — if not one-sided or editorial in nature — will be protected even if it contains defamatory material. The point is to promote effective government and accurate reporting on government actions.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes gave perhaps the classic formulation of the public’s interest in a fair report privilege in the 1884 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case Cowley v. Pulsifer, which involved a report of courtroom proceedings.

“It is desirable that the trial of causes should take place under the public eye, not because the controversies of one citizen with another are of public concern, but because it is of the highest moment that those who administer justice should always act under the sense of public responsibility and that every citizen should be able to satisfy himself with his own eyes as to the mode in which a public duty is performed,” Holmes wrote.

Reason 2: Pure Opinion Remains Protected

The single statement not found to be protected by the fair report privilege as a fact derived from government materials still didn’t qualify as defamatory because it was protected as pure opinion. Courts review news articles as a whole, the same way any common reader might understand them. In this case, Folta was offended by the term “tool of industry” in the article:

“But he also conceded in an interview that he could unfairly be seen as a tool of industry, and his university now intends to donate the Monsanto grant money.”

The Court ruled that the phrase “tool of industry” was close to and modified by the words “could unfairly be seen.” The court determined the “tool of industry” could not have a defamatory meaning because, when read as a whole, the writer’s opinion was “not that Plaintiff is a ‘tool of industry’ but rather that the unfair perception of him as one exists.”

Reason 3: State University Emails Equal Official Government Business

Florida’s open government and public records laws clearly outline access to public records and government meetings as a fundamental constitutional right for Florida’s citizens. It even addresses the digital age, stating that “automation of public records must not erode the right of access to those records.”

The Supreme Court of Florida has construed the term “public records” to include “all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business which are used to perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge.” Shevin v. Byron, Harless, Schaffer, Reid & Assocs., Inc., 379 So. 2d 633 (Fla. 1980).

Although scientist Folta argued the emails from his official public university account were not meant to be final, formalized knowledge, Judge Walker felt the assertion “that his emails are not public records borders on the nonsensical…In today’s virtual world, where almost all business is conducted electronically, this conclusion is absurd.”

Reason 4: The Court’s Duty to Uphold News Media’s Qualified Privilege

Qualified privilege, specifically pertaining to the press, refers to an immunity from defamation suit due to society’s right to be informed through a journalist’s rights or legal, moral, or social duty – free from malice – to share information. The journalist typically must show that he or she made the allegedly defamatory statement(s) in good faith, believing them to be true.

The judge explained that although this case was not “one cooked up by billionaire opponents of a free media,” ruling in Folta’s favor would effectively “open the door to far less meritorious suits by far less scrupulous plaintiffs… contribut[ing] to the ongoing chipping-away of the rights and privileges necessary to the press’s ability to play its intended role as government watchdog,” and that “this Court will not do so.”

Mark one down for freedom of the press.


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