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31.3.03

Suit Challenges Right To Report Political Slurs

... One council member, William T. Glenn Sr., called the council president and the mayor "liars," "criminals," "draft dodgers" and "child molesters." Mr. Glenn did not then or later produce evidence for any of his charges.

The lawsuit that followed [filed against the reporter who covered the council meeting], legal experts said, illuminates one of the hardest questions in libel law: May the news media report, without endorsement on the one hand or skepticism on the other, wild charges made by one politician against another?


Maybe it's because I'm such a fierce freedom of the press advocate, but I don't think that question is hard at all. If someone says something in a public or "on the record" situation, the media is well within its rights to report that they said it. Any libel charge should fall on the shoulders of Glenn, who made the remarks, not the newspaper that reported that he made them. Indeed, I would say the paper is failing in its durty to give an accurate picture of the council meeting if it omitted Glenn's accusations.

Journalists have a responsibility, whenever possible, to verify the accuracy of statements made by public officials -- that's what investigative journalism is all about. At the very least, the reporter ought to have checked to see if the council president had a criminal record and mentioned the result. Nevertheless, this responsibility is a matter of journalistic ethics, not law.

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