Legal Hotline - Defamation
Because the law is constantly evolving, it is important before relying
upon any opinion on this website that you check with the hotline counsel
to ascertain whether or not there has been any subsequent change or
supplementation to the law since the date of the opinion.
Answers provided by
Dec. 5, 2003
Are republications of statements in a filed complaint protected from
They are privileged if an answer has been filed and the
republication is full, fair and accurate.
Oct. 31, 2003
Can the newspaper report allegations contained in a complaint filed
If only the complaint was filed and no answer had as yet been filed,
the newspaper would not be protected from a libel action for
republication of the allegations of the complaint. The courts have
declined to protect complaints because any individual could file a
complaint to publicize allegations and then withdraw the complaint
once the public learned of the allegations. Because there is too
much room for abuse, complaints are not protected until an answer
has been filed. In the case of criminal complaints, protection
probably would not flow to the newspaper until a court made a
finding of probably cause.
April 8, 2003
Is a newspaper protected from suit when it republishes the contents
of a civil complaint?
There is some case authority that suggests the newspaper must
provide the defendantís position as well. There is concern that
persons will abuse the system by filing a complaint just to get the
allegations into the press and then withdraw the complaint.
Therefore, if the newspaper wishes to publish the allegations in the
complaint, it should seek to get a comment from the defendant(s) or
their attorney or wait until the defendantís file an answer and
include the contents of the answer as well.
Aug. 16, 2002
A local hotel was recently the subject of a story in the newspaper
because of the high number of complaints with the local consumer
protection board. The newspaper is now receiving letters to the
editor which recount problems encountered at the hotel by various
persons. Is there a threat of libel if the newspaper publishes these
Yes. A newspaper will be held responsible for the contents of
letters to the editor it publishes.
What is the standard of proof in a libel action by a private individual?
A private person need only prove negligence to sustain a defamation action.
newspaper has received a letter to the editor accusing a local business
of bigotry. If the newspaper prints the letter will it be open to a
As the re-publisher of the libel the newspaper is open to litigation the
same way it would be if the newspaper made the statement in a news
article. In this circumstance the parties are probably private
individuals, as opposed to public officials or public figures, and
therefore the plaintiff would only have to prove the newspaper was
negligent in publishing. For example, not investigating the facts may be
sufficient for a jury to find negligence.
a newspaper be held liable in defamation for a letter to the editor?
Both the original author and the newspaper as a re-publisher of the
statement are open to a defamation action. See the New Jersey Supreme
Court decision in Kotlikoff v. The Community News, 89 NJ 62 (1982).
a call advising that the paper was running a web page asking for
comments regarding points of interest in the local communities for
visitors--i.e., a tourist information Web page. The paper's concern was
that somebody might upload a piece of information about a local business
or the like which is negative; and in that event the paper would be
concerned as to whether or not it would be subject to liability exposure
for republication of a defamatory statement.
researching the developing but scarce legal decisions on this issue, we
advised that the case law seems to be developing along the lines of the
following: if the web page owner exercises editorial control over what
is uploaded by various contributors, then it assumes the same
responsibility, as would any newspaper in printing letters to the editor
-- i.e., the ordinary rules of republication makes the re-publisher
stand in the shoes of the original author of the defamatory statement.
However, where the front page operator/owner does not exercise any
control whatsoever over the content of the uploading contributors, then
it stands in the shoes of a bookstore or a library -- where the owner is
not liable for the contents of the books that pass through its shelves.
That is not deemed to be a republication; the books are simply being
made available for access and the bookstore owner or library owner is
not liable for the contents of the books.
newspaper has documented evidence that a local resident is involved with
an extremist right wing group. When approached, the resident denies any
knowledge of the group. May the newspaper still note the connection in a
story about the local activities of the group?
the newspaper presents a fair and accurate report of events it is
protected from suit. So long as the newspaper reports the denial along
with the evidence that contradicts the denial it has a defensible
a local Board of Education bring a suit against the newspaper based upon
letters to the editor critical of the Board?
newspaper is responsible as the re-publisher of all statements contained
in the letters to the editor it prints. So long as the opinions
expressed in the letter to the editor are opinions and the letters are
not presenting false facts the newspaper cannot be successfully sued for
The Hotline is operated by
General Counsel, Tom Cafferty of Gibbons P.C.
Cafferty has served in this capacity for more than 30 years and has
extensive First Amendment and communication law expertise. The Hotline
is available to all publications that are active members of the New Jersey
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NJPA Legal Hotline, c/o Gibbons P.C., One Gateway Center, Newark, NJ