The Supreme Court continued to squeeze the news media the other day by letting stand a lower court ruling that allows a Pennsylvania newspaper to be sued for accurately reporting a public official's wild accusations. The result may be to deprive citizens of an important way to evaluate the conduct of their elected leaders.
The ruling does not go so far as to set a precedent, but the direction is unsettling for both providers and consumers of news. Credibility is, in part, a product of specificity. If reporters and their employers have to worry they will be sued for accurately describing a public official's public comments, they will be more likely to offer less detailed reporting, thereby denying readers relevant information and compromising the believability of the report, or to ignore it altogether. Either way, citizens lose.
In fairness, there is another side to this issue. No one likes false statements to be made about his character and, worse, to have those statements disseminated in the media. In this case, for example, a councilman in Parkesburg, Pa., had called the mayor and another councilman "liars" and "a bunch of draft dodgers" and strongly suggested they were homosexuals who had put themselves "in a position that gave them an opportunity to have access to children." The accusations were clearly beyond the pale, and anyone can have sympathy for their targets.
But should that make them unreportable? Democracy is all about balancing interests. That's why government can compel the sale of private land in certain circumstances, and why zoning laws can restrict the uses of properties. Legitimate interests weigh on both sides, but the laws tilt toward the interests of the public over those of the individual, and properly so. They should do the same in the case of the uncouth councilman.
As unpleasant as it may be for individuals to see their names sullied in public, the greater harm is for the public to lose the ability to know the character of their leaders. In refusing to overturn the lower court's decision, the Supreme Court has not simply made the news media's job more difficult, it has interfered with the ability of citizens to monitor the people they place in positions of trust.
It was a bad ruling. The court should rethink it as soon as possible.