Media law

Virginia Broadcasting Corp. v. Commonwealth

Virginia Supreme Court rules trial court did not err in refusing TV station's request to have cameras present during the sentencing phase of convicted murder defendant George Huguely.

The court attempted to reconcile two seemingly contradictory phrases within the statute and while setting forth the specific procedure to be used in the future, acknowledged that it is not the way things have been done practically speaking.

Jordan v. Kollman (Virginia Supreme Court on libel)

Jordan, a resident of Colonial Heights, published advertisements criticizing the mayor for allowing low-income housing to be built in the city. In fact, the mayor had opposed the construction of the housing, and he sued for defamation. But the Court ruled that the mayor was a 'public official' required to show 'actual malice' in the case. Jordan testified that his ads were based on a certain newspaper article that supported his assertions. The Court found that he believed his advertisements represented the facts of the situation and had an objective reason for so believing. Because there was no clear and convincing evidence that Jordan’s ads were fabricated by him or a product of his imagination, there was no malice. The trial court should have granted Jordan’s motion to strike the evidence and set aside the jury's verdict.

Carr v. Forbes Inc. (4th Cir. on libel)

An engineer who sued a magazine for defamation had made himself a limited-purpose public figure by his role in choosing and publicizing contracts. He could not show that the magazine acted with . . .actual malice.’

Food Lion Inc. v. Capital Cities/ABC Inc. (4th Cir. on media law)

Defendant reporters got jobs with Food Lion through misrepresentation and made a videotape, which was aired on ABC, of the store’s unwholesome food handling practices. (1) The court held that, since the reporters were at-will employees for an indefinite period, there was no reliance on their misrepresentations that would support a fraud claim. (2) However, since the reporters intended to act against the interests of plaintiff, they were liable in tort for employee disloyalty. (3) Their disloyalty rose to trespass, because it went beyond the consent Food Lion granted them to enter the store’s premises. (4) The final two charges could not be shown. ABC and its reporters were not guilty of unfair trade practices, since they did not harm the consuming public. (5) Food Lion could not claim damages to its reputation resulting from the broadcast since it did not allege actual malice on the part of the defendants.

Yeagle v. Collegiate Times (Va. Supreme Court on libel)

Yeagle, a college employee, filed a complaint against Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, alleging defamation after the phrase . . .director of butt licking’ appeared under her name in an article. Her suit was dismissed, and the Court upheld that dismissal. As a matter of law, the phrase could not convey a defamatory meaning. It contained no factual information, but was instead a . . .disgusting’ bit of rhetorical hyperbole.

Reuber v. Food Chemical News Inc. (4th Cir. on libel)

Reuber, a scientist, declared himself a whistleblower and created the misleading impression that a controversial pesticide was carcinogenic. A newsletter published his employer's reprimand, which stated that Reuber had engaged in unprofessional conduct. He sued for defamation and won in a jury trial which awarded him compensatory and punitive damages. On appeal, the Court reversed and remanded in favor of Food Chemical News. Reuber had made himself a public figure, and so the . . .actual malice’ standard should be applied. The jury could not have found actual malice here. The court held that the First Amendment protected the public's right to learn both sides of a controversy through the press and declined to uphold a damages award that left the debate one-sided. The court reversed the jury verdict that favored Reuber and remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of the news group.

Falwell v. Flynt (4th Cir. on libel)

Falwell brought suit against Larry Flynt and his magazine for libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress after Hustler published a parody of the preacher having a drunken rendezvous with his own mother. (1) The district court dismissed the claim for invasion of privacy because the use of plaintiff's name and likeness in the parody was not for purposes of trade within the meaning of the statute. (2) The jury found for defendants on the libel claim because no reasonable person would believe that the parody described actual facts about Falwell, and the parody contained a disclaimer. (3) The jury found against defendant magazine and publisher on the emotional distress claim, and Falwell was awarded actual and punitive damages. On appeal, the Court held that the . . .actual malice’ standard for public officials was met, because the jury found that Flynt’s intentional or reckless misconduct caused Falwell’s severe emotional distress. NOTE: The Supreme Court reversed this opinion in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), Falwell was a public figure, the Court said, and so the "actual malice" standard was thus: Flynt must make a false statement of fact, knowing it to be false, or with reckless disregard for the truth. Here, because the trial below had found no one would believe the parody to represent actual facts, there was no actual malice.

The Gazette Inc. v. Harris (Virginia Supreme Court on libel)

In consolidated cases, several citizens sued newspapers for publishing defamatory articles about them. In each action, the trial court had applied a negligence standard, and the Court took the opportunity to clarify the standard of liability that should govern an award of compensatory damages to a private individual in a libel action. (1) A preponderance of the evidence must prove that the publication was false and that the defendant either knew it to be false, lacked reasonable grounds for believing it to be true, or acted negligently in failing to ascertain the facts. (2) The negligence standard applies only where the danger to the plaintiff's reputation is apparent from the defamatory statement. (3) The plaintiff can recover regardless of whether the publication in question related to a matter of public or general concern. (4) The negligence standard is applicable to both media and non-media defendants.

Fleming v. Moore (Virginia Supreme Court on libel)

A broker wanted to build a low-income residential development on land neighboring Moore, a U.Va. professor who opposed the development. The broker's application for rezoning was denied. Consequently, he published paid advertisements in The Cavalier Daily (U.Va.’s newspaper) saying Moore did "not want any black people within his sight." Moore brought a libel action alleging the advertisement injured his reputation in the university community. The Court reversed and remanded a trial court judgment for Moore. The advertisement was not defamatory per se, because the allegation of racism was not made in the context of the professor's employment as a teacher. In addition, the Court held that Moore was not a public figure as a professor or an outspoken resident. He would be entitled to recover compensatory damages upon proof of actual injury, including such elements as damage to his reputation and standing in the community, embarrassment, humiliation, and mental suffering.

Landmark Communications Inc. v. Commonwealth

The Va. Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law punishing anyone who divulged information about the proceedings of the Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission. The defendant newspaper, after identifying a judge whose conduct was being investigated by the Commission, was convicted and fined for violating the law. The Court said the law was constitutional because freedom of the press is not absolute and the Commission could not function without confidentiality. NOTE: The U.S. Supreme Court overturned this case in Landmark Communications, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829 (1978), ruling that the publication served the interests of public scrutiny and discussion of governmental affairs that the First Amendment was adopted to protect. Neither the state's interest in protecting the reputation of its judges, nor its interest in maintaining the institutional integrity of its courts, was sufficient to justify the subsequent punishment of speech.


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