In Young v. Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc., a divided Sixth Circuit panel affirmed a $100,000 defamation verdict against a newspaper based on an article that it published about a police officer. The case revolves around an article written by a reporter that claimed that the officer had sex with a woman while on the job. However, when the officer had been fired, an arbitrator ultimately reinstated him based on (among other things) the lack of evidence of that allegation. Nevertheless, the newspaper reported the incident as if it were fact.
The majority’s opinion, written by Judge Rogers, explained that an independent review was required of the verdict for constitutional reasons, but there were reasons compelling deference to the jury’s verdict: “thus, while we must make an independent determination regarding whether there is sufficient evidence of the existence of actual malice, we can properly defer to the jury on historical facts, credibility determinations, and elements of statutory liability.” In dissent, Judge Moore attacked this standard based on First Amendment concerns. Judge Moore would not “hedge” on this de novo review and accord greater deference to the jury’s findings as the majority did.
The majority also questioned whether the actual malice standard applied at all in this case because the individual was a rank and file police officer, rather than a public official. Although it is not clear whether that aspect of the Court’s decision was anything beyond dicta, Judge Moore criticized that in dissent, citing various other circuits that have found police officers to be public officials for the purposes of the actual malice standard of defamation.
Needless to say, in cases like this, there are countervailing interests that often clash on the First Amendment front. The divided nature of the decision here therefore may be of little surprise. But this case does provide a good road map of what not to do as a reporter, as the Court criticized the reporter’s lack of follow up investigation or seeking comment from the police officer. It is unclear whether those actions would have ultimately altered the outcome, but certainly they would have postured the newspaper in a better light.