The dismissal of a libel suit against the Boston Globe by a superior court judge here further clarifies what does, and what does not, constitute news media defamation against a public figure. But it also raises other issues regarding the obligations and responsibility of the press. Among them: How vigorously should the media pursue delving into the background of candidates for office and other individuals in the public limelight? How strongly should the element of good taste in reporting a story be weighed with the reporter's responsibility to vigorously pursue the facts? And does the recent proliferation of libel suits against the media, in and of itself, tend to damage the press's credibility?
Despite confusion over the jury's finding of a week ago in former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate John L. Lakian's defamation claim against the Globe, Superior Court Judge George Jacobs clearly interpreted the verdict as not constituting libel.
The jury had found five paragraphs of a 55-paragraph article about Mr. Lakian's background to be false. It also decided that three of the paragraphs were defamatory and published with ``knowing or reckless disregard'' as to their falsity.
The so-called Sullivan libel standards, derived from a landmark United States Supreme Court decision of two decades ago (New York Times v. Sullivan), define libel in terms of ``actual malice'' or ``knowing or reckless disregard'' for truth.
Sullivan standards apply specifically to public officials and figures and Lakian clearly fits into this category.
Despite its apparant finding of libel in three paragraphs of the story, the jury found the overall thrust of the article did not defame the plaintiff, and they awarded no compensatory damages. Partly on that basis, Judge Jacobs dismissed the libel suit.
Lakian had sought $50 million from the Globe for the personal and professional harm he said he suffered as a result of the newspaper article.
In addition, the Massachusetts judge dismissed two other counts against the Globe (which the jury had determined had no merit) involving invasion of privacy and malicious infliction of emotional distress.
Further, Judge Jacobs suggested that the newspaper could recover a nominal amount in statutory (court related) costs from the plaintiff.
In what might be considered a minor victory for the plaintiff, the judge did agree he would study a motion brought by Lakian's lawyers seeking sanctions against the Globe for ``ethical considerations'' in regard to interviews conducted with jurors after their deliberations were concluded.
Jacobs suggested that the media ought to carefully consider the redeeming value of posttrial questioning of jurors. A separate suit against the Globe was brought by Lakian's company, Fort Hill Investment Management Inc. But it is unclear whether this will be pursued.
Norman Roy Grutman, attorney for Lakian, says that he and his client now are weighing the possibility of appealing the superior court verdict to a higher judicial level. In a phone interview, Mr. Grutman decried the decision -- holding that even if ``compensatory'' damages were denied his client, the judge should have awarded ``nominal'' damages. (The former is a reimbursement for actual injury; the latter is somewhat symbolic, may carry a cash award of as little as $1, and is designed to vindicate the
reputation of the plaintiff.)
In a telephone interview, Michael C. Janeway, editor of the Globe, said he hoped that the verdict in the Lakian matter would help stem the ``tide of public figures bringing lawsuits'' against the media. Mr. Janeway also called for reinforcement of the principles of New York Times v. Sullivan in affirming press freedoms. He referred to the ``Mobil and Westmoreland'' cases as indications that decisions against the press were being reversed.
After lengthy and costly proceedings, retired Gen. William Westmoreland dropped his libel charges against CBS.
A jury verdict against the Washington Post, holding that the newspaper had libeled former Mobil Oil Corporation president William P. Tavoulareas, was reversed -- then later reinstated by a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. But the entire court has now agreed to review the case -- vacating the panel's action.
Editor Janeway stressed that Lakian should have sought remedies other than a libel suit in seeking redress against alleged grievances against the Globe. ``We take very seriously our Page 2 corrections and clarifications'' he said.
He also pointed out that the paper's ombudsman publishes regularly and gets reader feedback for reporters and editors.
Janeway added that ``letters'' to the editor are another option for those who take issue with the Globe.
``I want every piece of investigative journalism to stand up [in terms] of fairness and correctness,'' he said. ``We do make a few boo boos. But we conceded that at the start of the [Lakian] trial.''