Appeal from the Judgment Entered December 17, 1986 in the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, Civil No. 367 September Term 1979
Frederick N. Egler, Pittsburgh, for appellant.
Daniel M. Berger, Pittsburgh, for appellees.
Cirillo, President Judge, and Johnson and Montgomery, JJ. Montgomery, J., dissents.
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 514]
The libel action underlying this appeal stems from the publication of an article in the September 10, 1979 edition of the appellant's newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. See Appendix. The suit was tried by the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County sitting by agreement of the parties and counsel in neighboring Westmoreland County. The Honorable Gilfert M. Mihalich, President Judge of Westmoreland County, presided by special appointment. Following a lengthy trial, the jury returned a general verdict in favor of the appellees, Richard DiSalle and Joan DiSalle, his wife, in the combined amount of $210,000.00 compensatory and $2,000,000.00 punitive damages. The Post-Gazette filed timely motions for post-trial relief, which the trial court denied after a thorough and well reasoned discussion of the case. Here the paper seeks, in the alternative, a judgment non obstante veredicto, a new trial, or a remittitur of damages.
The appellant urges upon us three categories of error committed by the trial court which entitle it to the relief sought: (1) error concerning the constitutional "actual malice" standard to be applied; (2) error concerning the award of compensatory damages; and (3) error concerning the award of punitive damages.*fn1 We affirm.
The article in question appeared in the "City/Area" section of the Post-Gazette, a paper with a daily readership of
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 515]
nearly 200,000, under the title "Feud Heats in Family's Battle for $8 Million Inheritance." The matter was first brought to the attention of the Post-Gazette staff when Robert Ciaffoni called the assistant city editor, Dave Warner, to inform him of a dispute then embroiling his family over the will of his father, Paul Ciaffoni, who had died in 1974. Mr. Warner assigned a reporter, Tom Porter, to investigate the potential for a story.
Mr. Porter's first stop, and ultimately his principal source of information in this investigation, was Robert Ciaffoni. From Ciaffoni, Porter learned that the family dispute focused on the authenticity of the decedent's 1968 will, which had been admitted to probate in 1974. He also learned that Ciaffoni, as well as other family members, had taken the contest to the courts of Washington County by filing an appeal from probate, that the matter had been tried before the Honorable Earl S. Keim, specially appointed to preside over the contest, and that Judge Keim had upheld the validity of the probated document six months before Ciaffoni contacted the newspaper, and nearly a year before the article was published.
In this context, Richard DiSalle, a local attorney who had served for eight years on the trial bench of Washington County, and who later filled a vacancy on the commonwealth court bench by appointment of Governor Shapp, was alleged to have conspired with Ciaffoni's sister, Elizabeth Cowden, to produce the fraudulent will. After reviewing an early draft of Porter's story, Warner noted what he considered to be a hole in that it did not give any explanation why DiSalle would involve himself in such a conspiracy. In an attempt to address this concern, Porter included in later drafts material from a deposition taken of Robert Ciaffoni in anticipation of the will contest, wherein Ciaffoni was asked about prior statements he had made concerning the relationship between DiSalle and Mrs. Cowden. In the final article, this material, by then reduced to a single quote, left the reader with the impression that the reason for DiSalle's involvement in the conspiracy was a meretricious
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 516]
relationship with Mrs. Cowden. This issue was never raised during the trial itself, nor was the deposition introduced into evidence.
These two allegations made by Robert Ciaffoni, that is, that Richard DiSalle participated in a fraudulent act and that he had an illicit affair with a co-conspirator, contained as they were in an article that did not principally focus on the will contest which had occurred in Washington County much earlier, form the basis of this libel action.
The Post-Gazette first challenges the definition of actual malice applied by the trial court, asserting that a different standard should have been used under the facts of this case. Because the paper does not also allege that the evidence was insufficient to prove actual malice as the trial court defined it, we are faced with the single question whether the trial court committed an error of law in defining actual malice as it did. Before reaching this issue, however, we must first determine the propriety of applying the actual malice standard at all.
A. Applicability of Actual Malice
The requirement of proof of actual malice in certain defamation actions, discussed more extensively infra, was first introduced into the constitutional arena, where the tension between the freedoms of the First Amendment and the constraints of state defamation law is manifest, by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). There, the Court cleared the ground and laid the cornerstone of this coliseum for the stated purpose of more effectively limiting "a state's power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct." Id. at 283, 84 S.Ct. at 727 (emphasis added).
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 517]
At the time the article in question was being researched and published, Richard DiSalle was sitting on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania by appointment and was campaigning for a full term on that court. Thus, his status as a public official cannot be disputed. However, the alleged misconduct attributed to DiSalle occurred in the late 1960's, when he was a private attorney, and approximately ten years before his appointment to a vacancy on the Commonwealth Court. At first blush, then, it appears that only one of the two requirements of the New York Times standard has been met, and proof of actual malice should not have been required.
However, as is often the case, in the years which followed the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times, factual scenarios arose which tested the high court's statement of the rule. In Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125 (1964), the Supreme Court reversed a Louisiana Supreme Court decision which refused to apply the New York Times rule in a prosecution for criminal defamation. The state court reasoned that the expressions at issue did not fall within the purview of criticism of official conduct when the attack was on the personal integrity of eight state trial judges and not on the way any one of them conducted his court when in session.
Justice Brennan, in his opinion for the court, found this reasoning defective:
The public-official rule protects the paramount public interest in a free flow of information to the people concerning public officials, their servants. To this end, anything which might touch on an official's fitness for office is relevant. Few personal attributes are more germane to fitness for office than dishonesty, malfeasance, or improper motivation, even though these characteristics may also affect the official's private character.
Garrison, 379 U.S. at 77, 85 S.Ct. at 217 (footnote omitted).
In Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 401 U.S. 265, 91 S.Ct. 621, 28 L.Ed.2d 35 (1971), the Supreme Court was asked to revisit the question of what constitutes "official conduct" in
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 518]
determining when the New York Times rule is to be applied. There, the plaintiff in a civil libel action sought recovery for a statement made during the course of a political campaign that the candidate was a former small-time bootlegger. The trial court recognized that the plaintiff's candidacy for public office made him a public figure, but left it to the jury to determine whether the expression attacked official conduct rather than private conduct. The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the broadening of official conduct to that conduct which reflects on an official's fitness for office applies with special force to candidates. Roy, 401 U.S. at 274, 91 S.Ct. at 626.
The court went on to note that,
"[i]ndeed, whatever utility the 'official conduct' concept may retain with regard to occupants of public office . . . it is clearly of little applicability in the context of an election campaign. The principal activity of a candidate in our political system, his 'office', so to speak, consists in putting before the voters every conceivable aspect of his public and private life that he thinks may lead the electorate to gain a good impression of him . . . . And the candidate who vaunts his spotless record and sterling integrity cannot convincingly cry 'Foul!' when an opponent or an industrious reporter attempts to demonstrate the contrary. Any test adequate to safeguard First Amendment guarantees in this area must go far beyond the customary meaning of the phrase 'official conduct.'"
Judge DiSalle, at the time the Post-Gazette article was published, was the holder of a position in the public trust and a candidate to continue in that role. This factual situation was presented to the Supreme Court in Ocala Star-Banner Co. v. Damron, 401 U.S. 295, 91 S.Ct. 628, 28 L.Ed.2d 57 (1971), decided on the same day as Roy. In reasserting the position taken in Roy, the court stated "that a charge of criminal conduct against an official or a candidate, no matter how remote in time or place, is always 'relevant to his fitness for office' for purposes of applying
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 519]
the New York Times rule of knowing falsehood or reckless disregard of the truth." Ocala Star-Banner Co., 401 U.S. at 300, 91 S.Ct. at 632.
Judge DiSalle's action in libel focused on two statements in the Post-Gazette article, the first asserting that he was a co-conspirator in fraud, and the second attributing his participation in that fraud to an illicit affair with his co-conspirator. Fraud, of course, is a crime and therefore falls squarely within the above-stated rule. Participation in a meretricious affair, while not strictly criminal, does, under the facts of this case, impute an improper motivation, and therefore is relevant to Judge DiSalle's fitness for office. Accordingly, we conclude that Richard DiSalle was a public official at the time the article was published and that the offending expressions contained thereon related to official conduct. Cf. McLaughlin v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 465 Pa. 104, 348 A.2d 376 (1975) (press access to confidential records of a disciplinary proceeding brought against a private lawyer, now in public office, may be limited in spite of the public's interest in the qualifications of its servants; court distinguished the facts before it from cases like those relied upon here).
It being clear that the DiSalles cannot recover in defamation absent clear and convincing evidence that the Post-Gazette's allegedly defamatory article was published with actual malice, we must now determine what that term means. At its genesis, the Supreme Court described the publication of material with actual malice as publication "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." New York Times, 376 U.S. at 279-280, 84 S.Ct. at 726. As was true with the meaning of "official conduct" discussed above, the full definition of "actual malice" has awaited case-by-case development. Clearly the first part of the definition, that the information was published with "knowledge that it was false," does not present a difficulty, for one either knows or does not know that something is not true. It is the concept
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 520]
of reckless disregard which "cannot be fully encompassed in one infallible definition." St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 730, 88 S.Ct. 1323, 1325, 20 L.Ed.2d 262 (1968).
In Garrison, the Supreme Court equated reckless disregard with a "high degree of awareness of . . . probable falsity." Garrison, 379 U.S. at 74, 85 S.Ct. at 216. Justice Harlan, in his plurality opinion in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967), noted that "[i]nvestigating failures alone [have been] held insufficient to satisfy this standard." Id. at 153-154, 87 S.Ct. at 1991 (plurality opinion). The Court in St. Amant, supra, noted more expansively that
reckless conduct is not measured by whether a reasonably prudent man would have published, or would have investigated before publishing. There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. Publishing with such doubts shows reckless disregard for truth or falsity and demonstrates actual malice.
St. Amant, 390 U.S. at 731, 88 S.Ct. at 1325.
It is clear, then, that in its development the establishment of actual malice has never strayed far from the question of falsity, and that, for a plaintiff to prevail under this standard, it must be shown that the defendant was certain of that falsity or came close to willfully blinding itself to it. As the Supreme Court noted in Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, 466 U.S. 485, 104 S.Ct. 1949, 80 L.Ed.2d 502 (1984), "there is a significant difference between proof of actual malice and mere proof of falsity." Id. at 511, 104 S.Ct. at 1965 (footnote omitted). Recognizing that "erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and that it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the 'breathing space' that they 'need . . . to survive,'" New York Times, 376 U.S. at 271-272, 84 S.Ct. at 721 (citation omitted), the Court promulgated the actual malice standard to define the proper accommodation between
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 521]
the law of defamation and the freedoms of speech and press.
The allocation of this burden to the plaintiff creates the "breathing space" needed to avoid self-censorship by greatly expanding the zone of protected speech. However, the fact that the Supreme Court created a "fault" standard instead of declaring any recovery for defamation unconstitutional "makes irresistible the inference that a significant portion of this speech is beyond the constitutional pale. This observation is almost tautologically true with regard to libels published with 'actual malice.'" Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 783, 106 S.Ct. 1558, 1567, 89 L.Ed.2d 783 (1986) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (footnote omitted).
Instantly, the trial court instructed the jury on the issue of actual malice in the following manner:
Actual malice means that the Defendant newspaper knew that the defamatory statement was false when it published it or published the defamatory statements with reckless disregard of whether they were false or true. This means that the evidence must establish by clear and convincing evidence that the defamatory statement or that any defamatory statement was published with the knowledge that it was false or the entertainment of serious doubt as to the truth of the statement. Negligence, carelessness, bad judgment or inaccuracy in the preparation of the article is insufficient to prove actual malice. The mere failure to investigate does not establish reckless disregard, nor does mere negligence, negligent acts constitute actual malice. The reckless conduct which constitutes recklessness or a reckless disregard is not measured by whether a reasonable prudent man would have published or would have investigated before publishing. There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the Defendant, in fact, entertained serious doubt as to the truth of the publication. Publications with such doubt show reckless disregard to the truth or falsity, and this demonstrates actual malice.
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 522]
R.R. at 1735a-1736a. This charge clearly states the rule as we have developed it above.
Actual malice has been interpreted as an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers. If you find from the evidence that the Defendant newspaper made such an extreme departure, then you may find in considering this evidence that it acted with actual malice.
R.R. at 1736a. This interpretation of actual malice was rendered in Brophy v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 281 Pa. Super. 588, 596, 422 A.2d 625, 629 (1980) and relied upon Justice Harlan's plurality opinion in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 155, 87 S.Ct. 1975, 1991, 18 L.Ed.2d 1094 (1967) (joined by three other justices). Chief Justice Warren, in a separate opinion, criticized the creation of a standard based on "highly unreasonable conduct" as being a departure from New York Times and too uncertain to aid in the effectuation of its purpose. Curtis Publishing, 388 U.S. at 163, 87 S.Ct. at 1995 (Warren, C.J., concurring in the result). Given the virtual absence of subsequent cases applying this standard, its continued viability is suspect. However, we need not decide whether it was error to so instruct the jury because the appellant does not challenge this aspect of the court's charge.
The Post-Gazette, however, urges that while this definition of actual malice is correct for the typical defamation case, it ignores certain salient facts in this case which should have put the trial court on a different path away from New York Times in search of the proper definition of actual malice to be applied. In support of this assertion the appellant relies heavily on Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 91 S.Ct. 663, 28 L.Ed.2d 45 (1971).
Pape involved an article published in Time Magazine quoting parts of the then recently released fifth volume of the United States Commission on Civil Rights Report for
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 5231961]
. This volume, entitled "Justice," focused on evidence of police brutality gathered by the Commission staff from around the country, and, as one item, noted a complaint filed by James Monroe, a citizen of Chicago, against several police officers for violations under the Federal Civil Rights Acts. The Report went on to describe the substance of that complaint. Time, in reporting on the publication of "Justice," commented specifically on the section relating to Monroe and quoted extensively from the Report's summary of the allegations contained in Monroe's complaint. However, the article failed to indicate in any way that the charges being described were made by Monroe and were not the independent findings of the Commission. Detective Pape, one of the officers named in Monroe's complaint, sued Time for libel.
When trial was finally reached, and after all the evidence was in, the District Court granted Time's motion for a directed verdict. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that it was a jury question whether Time's failure to attribute the charges against Pape to Monroe rather than the Commission showed actual malice. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that the directed verdict was properly entered. In supporting this result, the Court repeatedly emphasized that Time was not reporting on the historical events described in "Justice," but, instead, was reporting on "Justice" itself. Based on this distinction, the Court criticized the lower court's analysis of the question of malice*fn2 as the kind which "may be adequate when the alleged libel purports to be an eyewitness or other direct account of events that speak for themselves," Pape, 401 U.S. at 285, 91 S.Ct. at 637, explaining that:
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 524]
A vast amount of what is published in the daily and periodical press purports to be descriptive of what somebody said rather than of what somebody did. Indeed, perhaps the largest share of news concerning the doings of government appears in the form of accounts of reports, speeches, press conferences, and the like. The question of the "truth" of such an indirect newspaper report presents rather complicated problems.
Id. at 285-286, 91 S.Ct. at 637 (emphasis in original).
The Post-Gazette interprets this language to mean that the Supreme Court equates conventional libel cases with eyewitness or direct accounts, and that, in the case of indirect newspaper reports, the Constitution requires the application of a different actual malice standard. In stating this surrogate standard, the Post-Gazette notes that the Pape Court never considered Time's state of mind with respect to the truth or falsity of Monroe's allegations; rather the Court concerned itself with the magazine's understanding of the Commission Report. The Post-Gazette concludes that "[t]he Supreme Court made very clear that where the publication consists of an 'indirect newspaper report' of statements made by a third-party source, the publisher's knowledge of the truth or falsity of the actual facts is not an issue in the 'actual malice' determination." Brief for Appellant at 18.
The proper explanation for the Pape Court's focus on Time's understanding of the Commission's Report, rather than the substance of Monroe's allegations, is easily found in the nature of the case before it, and far removed from the creation of a hybrid definition of actual malice. Before discussing the law to be applied, the Court noted that the case before it differed in a number of respects from the conventional libel case. The distinction relevant to the present discussion concerned the source of the alleged damage to reputation, the Court observing that it "was not that arising from mere publication, but rather that resulting from attribution of the Monroe accusations to an authoritative official source." Pape, 401 U.S. at 285, 91 S.Ct. at
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 525637]
. Thus, the Court failed to discuss Time's understanding of the truth or falsity of the Monroe accusations for the simple reason that that issue was not before it. The issue was whether Time had defamed Pape with actual malice when its article suggested that the United States Commission on Civil Rights was the party accusing him of the abuses contained in the Monroe complaint rather than Monroe, as the complainant, making allegations of abuse.*fn3
It was in this context, then, that the Court explained its earlier statement concerning the difficulties of determining "truth" in indirect newspaper reports:
In light of the totality of what was said in Justice, we cannot agree that when Time failed to state that the Commission in reporting the Monroe incident has technically confined itself to the allegations of a complaint, Time engaged in a "falsification" sufficient in itself to sustain a jury finding of "actual malice."
Time's omission of the word "alleged" amounted to the adoption of one of a number of possible rational interpretations of a document that bristled with ambiguities. The deliberate choice of such an interpretation, though arguably reflecting a misconception, was not enough to create a jury issue of "malice" under New York Times.
Id. at 289-290, 91 S.Ct. at 639. Because Pape shaped his theory on appeal around the allegation that Time defamed him by reporting that the Civil Rights Commission was accusing him of civil rights violations,*fn4 it was Time's subjective
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 526]
awareness of the truth or falsity of this fact which was the focus of the Court's actual malice analysis. The Court found Time's interpretation, that "Justice" was making the accusation, rational in light of the document's ambiguities and concluded that the evidence was insufficient to establish publication with knowing or reckless disregard of the truth.
From this language, the Post-Gazette attempts to herald the birth of a new definition of actual malice incorporating the concept of rational interpretation into all indirect reporting cases, including the instant case, in lieu of the publisher's subjective awareness of probable falsity of the underlying facts. No such sweeping effect can be attributed to Pape. There, the defamation complained of was in the underlying facts and was unrelated to the report upon which the publication was based. The Post-Gazette concedes that the defamation in the instant case concerned the statements that Richard DiSalle was a co-conspirator in a fraud and that he was involved in a meretricious affair. Nowhere is it contended that the defamatory injury stemmed from the newspaper's attribution of the accusations to Robert Ciaffoni or to any other source.
Even without the distinction between Pape and this case, however, we are not persuaded that the language of Pape redefines actual malice under its own facts. In Dickey v. CBS, Inc., 583 F.2d 1221 (3rd Cir.1973), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was confronted with an argument similar to the one presented here. There, the appellant claimed that Pape stood for the proposition that cases "involving false statements by a third party which [have] been published by the press, are entitled to a unique constitutional analysis." Id. at 1226. After reviewing the language from Pape which we considered above, the court concluded that "the Supreme Court's purpose in stating that Time was
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 527]
quoting from a third party appears to have been merely to emphasize the difficulty in accurately interpreting and communicating a third party's meaning without quoting a third party's statement in its entirety." Id. In the form of a more concise statement as to the effect of Pape on the jurisprudence of defamation and actual malice, the court in McBride v. Merrell Dow & Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 800 F.2d 1208 (D.C.Cir.1986) noted:
That a statement might have been made without actual malice does not demonstrate that it was in fact so made. Ambiguity of a statement's subject matter may be probative evidence negating a finding of actual malice, see Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, 290, . . . [91 S.Ct. 633, 639] but it does not call forth a conclusive presumption precluding resort to actual evidence of the defendant's state of mind.
Id. at 1212 (emphasis in original).
We agree. Surely if the Supreme Court in Pape had intended to announce a unique constitutional analysis for indirect reporting cases, it would have said so. Instead, it applied the definition of actual malice we stated above, and determined that, "[a]pplying this standard to Time's interpretation of the Commission Report, it can hardly be said that Time acted in reckless disregard of the truth." Pape, 401 U.S. at 292, 91 S.Ct. at 640 (emphasis added); see also Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448, 459 n. 4, 96 S.Ct. 958, 967, 47 L.Ed.2d 154 (1976) ("Petitioner is incorrect in arguing that a rational interpretation of an ambiguous document is constitutionally protected under . . . Pape. . . . There we were applying the New York Times standard . . . .").
The real thrust of the protection sought by the Post-Gazette, therefore, is not contained in Pape for, as we have demonstrated, that decision does not stand for the proposition asserted*fn5 and is inapposite to the facts of the
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 528]
instant case. However, by also relying on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit's decision in Edwards v. National Audubon Society, 556 F.2d 113 (2nd Cir.) cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1002, 98 S.Ct. 647, 54 L.Ed.2d 498 (1977), the Post-Gazette provides us with a far more apposite, albeit not binding, see Cianfrani v. Johns-Manville Corp., 334 Pa. Super. 1, 6, 482 A.2d 1049, 1051 (1984) (ruling of federal intermediate appellate panel not binding on Pennsylvania courts), precedent for the claim that it is protected by a constitutional privilege of neutral reportage.*fn6
In Edwards, the New York Times reported on a charge contained in the Foreword to the National Audubon Society's publication, "American Birds." There, the editor stated that scientists who claimed the use of the insecticide DDT was not adversely affecting the bird populations had been "paid to lie." A reporter for the Times procured the names of these scientists and published the story. The scientists sued for defamation.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in reversing a judgment for the plaintiffs, reasoned that:
[W]hen a responsible, prominent organization like the National Audubon Society makes serious charges against a public figure, the First Amendment protects the accurate and disinterested reporting of those charges, regardless of the reporter's private views regarding their validity. See Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279, . . . [91 S.Ct. 633]; Medina v. Time, Inc., 439 F.2d 1129 (1st Cir.1971). What is newsworthy about such accusations is that they were made. We do not believe that the press may be required under the First Amendment to suppress newsworthy statements merely because it has serious doubts regarding their truth.
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 529]
the common law rule of fair report,*fn9 nor does it challenge the jury's finding that the privilege had been abused. Therefore, we need not consider the issue of the common law privilege.
We also reassert that the Post-Gazette has not challenged the trial court's charge on actual malice as defined by New York Times v. Sullivan, supra, and its progeny, nor does it challenge the sufficiency of the evidence to support a finding of actual malice in this case. In fact, as will be developed infra, the need for the neutral reportage doctrine is manifest only in those circumstances where the defendant is not already protected by the constitutional requirement for proof of actual malice. Therefore, by relying solely on the neutral reportage doctrine, the Post-Gazette is implicitly admitting the existence of actual malice. The only error alleged is that the trial court failed to consider the neutral reportage doctrine in charging the jury and in deciding the motion for judgment n.o.v. Therefore, the availability of this doctrine to the Post-Gazette is the only remaining liability issue we will address.*fn10
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 531]
The appellant has not brought to our attention, nor has our independent research disclosed, any Pennsylvania decisions discussing the existence of a constitutional privilege of neutral reportage which would protect from liability a media defendant which reports defamatory statements made against public figures, regardless of the republisher's subjective awareness of the truth or falsity of the accusations. But see Braig v. Field Communications, 310 Pa. Super. 569, 587, 456 A.2d 1366, 1376 (1983), allocatur denied, Page 532} cert. denied, 466 U.S. 970, 104 S.Ct. 2341, 80 L.Ed.2d 816 (1984) (court implicitly rejected the neutral reportage doctrine by reversing summary judgment in favor of defendant television station on grounds that jury could find actual malice in rebroadcasting accusations of another where there was evidence that station general manager may have had "serious doubts" about truth of the underlying statements). The trial court, in discussing the Post-Gazette's reliance on Edwards, observed:
Where the issue is whether the Defendant published the defamatory material with knowledge of its falsity or with serious subjective doubts in that regard, a fundamental consideration must accordingly be given to the source of the allegations which are alleged to be tortious. Where, as in Time Inc.*fn11 and Edwards, the sources are official governmental records or the report of a renowned private institution, the publisher may justifiably rely on the materials contained therein and must only insure that the re-publication fairly and reasonably distills that which was contained in the original report. Such sources do not raise the "red flags" which the St. Amant [v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727 [88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d 262] (1968)*fn12]
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 533]
Court identified, and, unless a plaintiff can prove more particular subjective knowledge on part of the publisher's [sic] that such otherwise credible sources are not to be believed, actual malice is not readily inferable.
Trial Court Opinion p. 14 (footnote omitted). The court then concluded that "[c]ertainly, in the context of this case, Robert Ciaffoni could not be considered a source of information as competent as the United States Civil Rights Commission or the National Audubon Society." Id. at 18. For this reason the court determined that Edwards did not assist the Post-Gazette.
This reliance on the language in Edwards which appears to limit its result to situations where the source of the republished defamation is "a responsible, prominent organization like the National Audubon Society," Edwards, 556 F.2d at 120, is not unique to the trial court. In Cianci v. New Times Publishing Co., 639 F.2d 54 (2d Cir.1980), the Second Circuit was faced with the application of its own doctrine in deciding whether the district court had been correct in dismissing a complaint in libel. The Court of Appeals determined that the dismissal was error on the grounds that, inter alia, the defendant was not shielded by the constitutional privilege of neutral reportage. Prior to reaching this conclusion, however, the court felt it necessary to closely examine the language of the Edwards opinion to discern the scope of the privilege stated therein.*fn13
In conducting this review, the court noted as limiting language
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 534]
the statements that "when a responsible, prominent organization like the National Audubon Society makes serious charges against a public figure, the First Amendment protects the accurate and disinterested reporting of these charges, regardless of the reporter's private views regarding their validity"; that "[w]hat is newsworthy about these accusations in that they were made"; that "[t]he public interest in being fully informed about such controversies that rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report such charges without assuming responsibility for them"; that while "we must provide immunity from defamation suits where the journalist believes, reasonably and in good faith that his report accurately conveys the charges made . . . [i]t is equally clear, however, that a publisher who in fact espouses or concurs in the charges made by others or who deliberately distorts these statements to launch a personal attack of his own on a public figure, cannot rely on a privilege of neutral reportage" but rather "assumes responsibility for the underlying accusations"; that the Times had "published the maligned scientists' outraged reactions in the same article that contained the Society's attack"; that the article was "the exemplar of fair and dispassionate reporting of an unfortunate but newsworthy contretemps"; and that "[w]e believe that the New York Times cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, be afflicted with a libel judgment for the accurate reporting of newsworthy accusations made by a responsible and well-noted organization like the National Audubon Society." 556 F.2d at 120-22.
Cianci, 639 F.2d at 68-69 (footnote omitted). The court then observed that "[t]he New Times article fulfills almost none of the conditions laid down in Edwards," id. at 69, and concluded that "it is enough for decision in this case that a jury could well find that the New Times did not simply report the charges but espoused or concurred in them . . . ." Id.
[ 375 Pa. Super. Page 535]
Although the court bottoms its holding on the republisher's apparent adoption of the charges made, we are not constrained to read this as the only limitation to be placed on Edwards. After discussing how the evidence could be read to indicate an espousal of the charges, the court made the following statement:
The need for the careful limitation of a constitutional privilege for fair reportage is demonstrated by the breadth of that defense, which confers immunity even for publishing statements believed to be untrue. Absent the qualifications set forth by Chief Judge Kaufman in Edwards, all elements of the media would have absolute immunity to espouse and concur in the most unwarranted attacks, at least upon any public official or figure, based on episodes long in the past and made by persons known to be of scant reliability. And this, although without any such immunity, the media already enjoy the generous protection accorded by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan with respect to erroneous statements of fact or opinion.
It is clear from the language of Edwards and Cianci that the privilege of neutral reportage is both limited and conditional, that is, it may be lost if its terms are not followed. Binder v. Triangle Publishers, Inc., 442 Pa. 319, 324, 275 A.2d 53, 56 (1971) ("A qualified privilege is one that can be lost by abuse"). Drawing from the language quoted by the Cianci court, then, the rule can be stated as follows: A reporter is privileged to publish the serious charges of a responsible, prominent entity (either an organization or individual, as there is no reason to believe the Edwards court intended a distinction) involved in a raging controversy and concerning a public official or public figure, irrespective of the publisher's belief as to the falsity of the charges, provided the reporter does not espouse or concur in the charges and reasonably and in good faith believes the report accurately conveys the charges made. Therefore, entitlement to the privilege is determined by the following elements: (1) the character of the defamer; (2) the character
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of the controversy; and (3) the character of the defamed. The privilege is lost through abuse depending on the nature of the republication. See Comment, Constitutional Privilege, supra, note 13, at 1275-1281.*fn14
Other courts applying the neutral reportage doctrine as a constitutional privilege have similarly limited Edwards. See, e.g., Dixson v. Newsweek, Inc., 562 F.2d 626, 631 (1977) (the defamed party must be a public official or figure); Lasky v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., 631 F.Supp. 962, 970-971 (S.D.N.Y.1986) (tracks Cianci); Barry v. Time, Inc., 584 F.Supp. 1110, 1127 (N.D.Ca.1984) (defamed is public figure involved in an existing controversy with the defamer); McManus v. Doubleday & Co., Inc., 513 F.Supp. 1383, 1391 (S.D.N.Y.1981) (limits to pre-existing public controversies -- not apply to investigative reporting); Davis v. Keystone Printing Service, Inc., 155 Ill.App.3d 309, 324, 108 Ill.Dec. 17, 28, 507 N.E.2d 1358, 1369 (1987) (defamed must be a public figure and defamer must be responsible prominent person); Martin v. Wilson Publishing Co., 497 A.2d 322, 330 (R.I.1985) (defamer must be prominent responsible organization). For additional cases see Note, The Developing Privilege of Neutral Reportage, 69 Va.L.Rev. 853, 864-865 nn. 60-62 (1983). We are troubled by this formulation, however, because of the apparent absence of a constitutional foundation for this purported
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First Amendment protection. To better explain our conundrum we turn to cases which have expressly rejected the rule.
The leading federal case in this category is Dickey v. CBS, Inc., 583 F.2d 1221 (3d Cir.1978).*fn15 In Dickey, the court refused to adopt Edwards on the grounds that the stated doctrine was contrary to established Supreme Court precedent. The court's refusal centered on the Edwards court's lack of concern for the publisher's reckless disregard of the truth and its effect on liability, and concluded that,
[w]hile the Second Circuit found that there can be no liability despite the publisher's "serious doubts" as to the truthfulness, St. Amant [v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727] holds that for libel against a public figure to be proved, "[t]here must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. Publishing with such doubts shows reckless disregard for truth or falsity and demonstrates actual malice." 390 U.S. at 731, 88 S.Ct. at 1325.
Id. at 1225 (emphasis added by the Third Circuit).
The Dickey court concluded that the Edwards expression of a neutral reportage privilege also runs afoul of Supreme Court precedent when it establishes as the trigger for the constitutional protection the publication of a "newsworthy" statement. Id. at 1226 n. 5. Using a standard based on the content of the statement for determining when the constitution will limit the States' powers to protect its citizens from defamatory falsehoods, the court argues, was expressly rejected by the Supreme Court in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 346, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3010, 41 L.Ed.2d 789
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(1974) ("The 'public or general interest' test . . . inadequately serves both of the competing values at stake"). Accord Makis v. Area Publications Corp., 77 Ill.App.3d 452, 463, 32 Ill.Dec. 804, 812, 395 N.E.2d 1185, 1193 (1979) (Romiti, J., dissenting) ("[I]t is not sufficient if the defamation concerns private persons involved in matters of public or general concern."); Hogan v. Herald Co., 84 A.D.2d 470, 477, 446 N.Y.S.2d 836, 842 aff'd, 58 N.Y.2d 630, 458 N.Y.S.2d 538, 444 N.E.2d 1002 (1982) ("Presumably, all publications of the news media are newsworthy."). For additional cases, see Note, Neutral Reportage, supra, at 863 n. 53.
A second line of cases has refused to recognize a constitutional privilege of neutral reportage on the grounds that such a privilege would be superfluous. For example, the Michigan Court of Appeals "decline[d] to embrace Edwards as the press is adequately protected by the burden of proof required in Sullilvan." Postill v. Booth Newspaper, Inc., 118 Mich.App. 608, 622, 325 N.W.2d 511, 578 (1982); accord, Janklow v. Viking Press, Inc., 378 N.W.2d 875, 881 (S.D.1985) ("[T]he media already enjoys the generous protection accorded by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan with respect to erroneous statements of fact and opinion"). As an embodiment of both of these criticisms, an Illinois court concluded "that the constitutional limitations on the liability of the press for libel have been fully and exclusively expressed by the Supreme Court in Time, Inc. v. Firestone (1976), 424 U.S. 448 [96 S.Ct. 958] . . . Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974), 418 U.S. 323, [94 S.Ct. 2997,] . . . Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), 388 U.S. 130, [87 S.Ct. 1975] . . . and New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), 376 U.S. 254, . . . [84 S.Ct. 710]." Newell v. Field Enterprises, Inc., 91 Ill.App.3d 735, 757-58, 47 Ill.Dec. 429, 447, 415 N.E.2d 434, 452 (1980) (emphasis added).
We note, in support of this argument, that, at least at this stage in the development of the rule, no court choosing to rely on neutral reportage to protect a defamation defendant has had to do so exclusively. For example, in Edwards itself the court found that "[e]ven absent the special protection
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afforded to neutral reportage, . . . the evidence adduced at trial was manifestly insufficient to demonstrate 'actual malice' on the part of the Times." Edwards, 556 F.2d at 120. Also, in Barry v. Time, Inc., 584 F.Supp. 1110 (1984), an opinion enthusiastically embracing neutral reportage, the court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the publisher on the dual grounds that the amended complaint failed to plead actual malice with sufficient specificity, and that the publisher was constitutionally protected by the privilege of neutral reportage.
The criticism that the rule is superfluous, however, misses the intent of the neutral report privilege as expressed in Edwards. The privilege is superfluous only if its protection is coextensive with actual malice. It is not. As we have seen, under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, supra, the Constitution protects the publishing of defamatory falsehoods unless it is shown "that the statement was made with 'actual malice' -- that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." New York Times, 376 U.S. at 279-280, 84 S.Ct. at 726. The doctrine of neutral reportage anticipates a broader protection than this, believing "that the press may [not] be required under the First Amendment to suppress newsworthy statements merely because it has serious doubts regarding their truth." Edwards, 556 F.2d at 120. Thus, while the two doctrines overlap when actual malice cannot be shown, and a separate privilege of neutral reportage would indeed be redundant, when knowledge of or a reckless disregard as to falsity exists, it is clear that neutral reportage stands alone in asserting a constitutional privilege to publish. This, then, is the context within which we must analyze neutral reportage.
Although this conclusion is sufficient to dispose of the redundancy argument, it is merely the first step in deciding whether Edwards runs afoul of New York Times and its progeny. For this broader First Amendment protection to stand, a basis in the Constitution must be found other than that which justifies the requirement of actual malice. Otherwise,
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the privilege of neutral reporting must fail because it would upset the balance already struck by the Supreme Court in protecting our constitutional freedoms of expression and the countervailing state interest in protecting reputation.
Proof of actual malice was deemed necessary because of our "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." New York Times, 376 U.S. at 270, 84 S.Ct. at 721. Even the occasional erroneous statement, inevitable in free debate, "must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the 'breathing space' that they 'need . . . to survive.'" Id. at 271-272, 84 S.Ct. at 721.
Thus, in order to protect our system of self-government by guaranteeing the free flow of information essential to that purpose, those who have sought official positions within the government (public officials) and those who have "assumed roles of especial prominence in the affairs of society" (public figures), Gertz, 418 U.S. at 345, must endure the publication of defamatory falsehoods so long as it is done without actual malice. However, this does not amount to a blanket protection for all falsehoods; rather, "[t]he First Amendment requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. at 341, 94 S.Ct. at 3007. Therefore, the actual malice standard continues to recognize that "[n]either the intentional lie nor the careless error materially advances society's interest in 'uninhibited, robust, and wide-open' debate on public issues." Id. at 340, 94 S.Ct. at 3007 (citation omitted).
In Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153, 99 S.Ct. 1635, 60 L.Ed.2d 115 (1979), the Supreme Court reasserted the breadth of the actual malice protections when it refused to acknowledge a chilling effect on editorial decisionmaking if public defamation plaintiffs are allowed to inquire into the editorial processes of the defendant, noting that, "if the
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claimed inhibition flows from the fear of damages liability for publishing knowing or reckless falsehoods, those effects are precisely what New York Times and other cases have held to be consistent with the First Amendment. Spreading false information in and of itself carries no First Amendment credentials." Id. at 171, 99 S.Ct. at 1646. It is clear, then, that neutral reportage, which seeks to protect the knowing publication of falsehoods, would indeed upset this balance if placed on the actual malice scale.
In attempting to provide a constitutional foundation for neutral reportage, the Edwards court relied on the rationale of the "public's need to know," by noting that "[t]he public interest in being fully informed about controversies that often rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report [defamatory] charges without assuming responsibility for them." Edwards, 556 F.2d at 120. However, the court distanced itself from the rationale behind the actual malice standard when it stated that "[w]hat is newsworthy about [serious charges made by a prominent organization against a public figure] is that they were made," id., thereby finding the constitutional value of the statement in the nature of the defamer and his relationship to the controversy, not in the status of the person defamed.
We reach this conclusion for the compelling reason that, if the focus was on the party defamed, the balance struck by actual malice would be offended if not followed. Therefore, the speech which is to be protected by neutral reportage is not the defamatory falsehood itself, but the speech required to convey the information that a certain individual involved in a controversy made a particular charge. Describing the protected speech in this manner helps to explain why, with neutral reportage, the subjective awareness of the republisher that the statement is false becomes irrelevant. An analogy may be drawn to the hearsay rule of evidence. Where the out of court statement is offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted in the statement, it will be excluded; but if the fact that the statement was
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made has significance independent of its truth, it will be admitted. See, Note, Neutral Reportage, supra, at 867 n. 75.
Recognizing the belief that "no statement is significant merely because it is said unless the identity if the speaker has some special significance," Comment, Constitutional Privilege, supra note 13, at 1276, we now return to our concern about the Edwards statement of the neutral reportage doctrine. As we have noted, Edwards, and Cianci interpreting Edwards, focused on the prominence and reliability of the original defamer to determine whether the protections of neutral reportage should apply. Neither of these criteria, however, are ...