High court raises barrier to bringing libel suits to trial

The United States Supreme Court has given the media a victory in the area of libel. The justices ruled Wednesday that public figures and other well-known plaintiffs must show ``clear and convincing'' proof of defamation to ward off dismissal of libel cases in pretrial rulings. The decision will make it even more difficult for renowned persons to sue the press for allegedly false and defamatory statements.

As it is, over 70 percent of all defamation suits against the media never come to trial. In most of these unsuccessful actions, press defendants obtain so-called ``summary judgments,'' putting an end to lawsuits in which a judge determines that there is insufficient evidence for the plaintiff to prevail.

The court, by a 6-to-3 vote, applied the so-called ``Sullivan'' standard of ``actual malice'' to pretrial hearings in libel actions by public figures. ``Actual malice'' means knowledge by the press that defamatory statements are untrue, or else reckless disregard of the truth or falsehood of the statements.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Byron R. White said that in order to avoid a summary judgment dismissal of his suit, a plaintiff must show by ``clear and convincing'' evidence that the allegedly defamatory statements were printed or broadcast with actual malice.

However, the dissenters criticized the decision for failing to give trial judges more specific help in determining what they should do to squelch libel lawsuits before trial. The Supreme Court decision overruled the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in connection with a libel lawsuit against columnist Jack Anderson brought by Liberty Lobby, a citizens group. The appellate court had decided that meeting the ``clear and convincing proof'' standard on the question of actual malice was too demanding a burden for plaintiffs to bear at the summary judgment stage of a case.

Liberty Lobby and its founder, Willis Carto, had sued Anderson for libel over two articles printed in Anderson's magazine, The Investigator. These pieces, which were not written by Anderson himself, charged that the Carto group was pro-Nazi.

In a pre-trial hearing, a federal district court judge threw out the suit, awarding summary judgment to Anderson. He determined that Mr. Carto was a ``public figure'' under libel law guidelines since he made public statements on behalf of Liberty Lobby. And the judge said that in order to warrant bringing the case to trial, the plaintiff would have to prove the magazine's statements were ``false and defamatory'' and that its publisher had acted with ``actual malice.''

The district court decided that no such proof existed. The federal appeals court disagreed with the application of these standards, however, and reinstated the suit.

But Justice White wrote, ``Where the factual dispute concerns actual malice . . . the appropriate summary judgment question will be whether the evidence in the record could support a reasonable jury finding either that the plaintiff has shown actual malice by clear and convincing evidence or that the plaintiff has not.''

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