Goodwin Procter won a complete victory for the Vineyard Gazette last week, when the Massachusetts Superior Court dismissed defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims brought by the former Chief of Staff for former Georgia Senator Max Cleland. The decision provides clarity and comfort to news outlets regarding the scope of the “fair report privilege” and the protections afforded to reports regarding unelected political advisors.
According to the complaint, the plaintiff attended a fundraiser for then-Presidential candidate John Edwards, with the purpose of advising Senator Cleland on whether he should endorse Edwards. The following morning, the plaintiff was arrested at the Menemsha Coast Guard Station and charged with multiple crimes.
The Vineyard Gazette published three news articles covering the arrest, summarizing facts taken from the official police report and case docket.
The plaintiff argued that he was not a public figure subject to the heightened pleading requirements of actual malice, and that some of the facts taken from the police reports were false and defamatory. The court, however, found that he was a limited purpose public figure based on his asserted significance to the Edwards campaign, and in his role as an advisor to Senator Cleland. Because the complaint failed to allege the heightened requirement of actual malice, the claims were dismissed.
The court also found that the Gazette’s report was entitled to the ‘fair report privilege’ which permits a newspaper to report an arrest based on police reports, without taking independent steps to ensure that the information is correct.
Founded in 1846, the Vineyard Gazette is an award-winning subscription newspaper covering the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Long known for its advocacy of environmental preservation on the island the Gazette was acquired by James "Scotty" Reston, a Pulitzer Prize winner and editor at The New York Times, in 1968 and remained in the Reston family for almost half a century. In November 2010, the newspaper was bought by Jerome and Nancy Kohlberg, longtime seasonal residents and Island philanthropists. Its web site is www.mvgazette.com.