Pa. Officials Settle 1995 Defamation Suit Against Newspaper

July 17, 2006

Two former West Chester, Pennsylvania city officials have settled a decade-long lawsuit against their local newspaper in a case that spawned a 2004 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that news media said eroded free press protections.

The defamation case focused on a 1995 story in the Daily Local News of West Chester which appeared under the headline “Slurs, insults drag town into controversy.” In it, the newspaper reported the ranting of a Parkesburg councilman who accused the mayor and a fellow councilman of being “liars,” “criminals,” “queers,” “draft dodgers” and “child molesters.”

Former Mayor Alan M. Wolfe and former Council President James B. Norton settled their lawsuit against the newspaper Thursday while the case was being retried before a Chester County jury. Terms of the deal were not released.

Attorneys representing the newspaper declined to comment.

A jury in March 2000 awarded Wolfe and Norton each $17,500 in punitive and compensatory damages from their former colleague. But jurors also decided that the newspaper and its reporter were not liable, in part because of the trial judge’s instructions concerning the “neutral reportage privilege.”

The case eventually was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which in October 2004 ordered a new trial to decide the journalists’ liability. That decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined in March 2005 to hear the case — setting the stage for this week’s retrial in Chester County.

The state Supreme Court said the media have no absolute constitutional protection when reporting defamatory comments made by reputable public figures, even when describing the comments in a neutral manner.

Free speech advocates said the decision leaves Pennsylvania media legally vulnerable when reporting comments by public figures and could chill news coverage of political campaigns, when charges and countercharges are commonplace.

“This decision leaves a pall over other reporters … and the people will hear less about their public officials than I think they should,” said David Kairys, a Temple University professor of constitutional law.

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