Q&A: Defamatory letters to the editor


From The La Porte Herald-Argus:

Q: I received two letters to the editor this week that make defamatory statements about public officials. Are we opening ourselves up to legal issues if they are published?

A: In both cases, the newspaper has a certain level of insulation under libel law. If published, both will be clearly marked as letters to the editor so readers can understand that the defamatory statements are the opinion of the letter writer.

In both cases, the targets of the defamatory statements are public officials – judge, prosecutor, police. Libel law allows for caustic opinions of government officials, so that is in your favor.

What you don’t want to publish are any statements that you know or believe to be false, even if it’s couched as someone’s opinion. That would open you up to liability for printing a defamatory statement that you knew was false, indicating you are publishing it with either malice or reckless disregard for the truth.

So edit the letters under that approach. You aren’t expected to go out and prove each opinion in the letters is true before you print it, but don’t print something you know to be false.

Contact Steve Key, HSPA executive director and general counsel, with media law questions at skey@hspa.com or (317) 624-4427.