Truth Is No Longer An Absolute Defense Against Libel?!?
from the um...-that's-not-good dept
Thanks to Jon, for pointing to us a very scary recent court ruling that appears to have done away with one of the most basic free speech rights: that truth is an absolute defense against libel. Apparently, a federal appeals court in Boston feels that there are exceptions to this rule, and that even the truth can be libelous. If that seems incredibly problematic, you’re right.
The case involved the office supply company Staples, who had fired an employee for abusing the company’s travel and expense reporting system. After letting the guy, Alan S. Noonan, go, the company sent an email to many employees letting them know why Noonan was fired: “A thorough investigation determined that Alan was not in compliance with our [travel and expenses] policies.” Noonan sued for libel, but Staples pointed out that since it was entirely accurate, there was no case.
However, the appeals court noted a century old Massachusetts law that suggests that truth is a defense against libel except if the plaintiff can show “actual malice” by the defendant in publishing the statement. Even though an earlier ruling had ruled that particular law was unconstitutional, the appeals court said that earlier ruling didn’t apply. Instead, it said that since Staples had never named an employee fired for similar reasons, there was “malice” in sending out the email it sent. This may only apply in Massachusetts and it’s highly likely to eventually be overturned (either in a rehearing by the entire appeals court, or eventually the Supreme Court), but in the meantime, it represents a very troubling change in the commonly accepted understanding that true statements can’t be found as libelous.