by Sarah Squires
Newspapers across the state have expressed support for the Winona Post in a libel suit brought by
former Winona Area Public Schools Board Chair Stacey Mounce Arnold against the Post. Newspaper publishers are backing the Winona Post in a lawsuit that they say raises concerns about First Amendment protections of the United States Constitution.
The Minnesota Newspaper Association (MNA) Board of Directors voted in September to establish a support fund, after learning that the suit had not been dismissed by District Court Judge Jeffrey Thompson. MNA Board of Directors President and Mille Lacs Messenger Publisher Kevin Anderson said all newspapers have a stake in the outcome of the suit. “We’re a huge believer in not only open meeting laws, but also that public officials are to be [scrutinized],” he said. “It’s the newspapers’ job to take that to the people, and to foster public debate on these kinds of issues.”
Arnold filed the lawsuit in 2010, alleging four news articles and one editorial printed in the Winona Post during her tenure as a school board member included false and defamatory information which damaged her dental business and reputation. Former Winona Post Publisher John Edstrom, who passed away in June 2012, current Winona Post Publisher Frances Edstrom and former News Editor Cynthya Porter were named in the suit.
The First Amendment and public officials
The First Amendment protects free speech and the freedom of the press, and the parameters of the law have been shaped by key Supreme Court decisions over the past 40 years. Newspapers have often taken a leading role in these court cases, and have long defended the freedom of the press and the related right to free speech.
One of the most famous free speech cases in the country was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964, and its outcome established a higher burden of proof for government and public officials bringing a libel case against a news media organization.
The case, The New York Times v. Sullivan, established the principle that certain kinds of government officials require greater scrutiny from the media so that the public can better observe their actions. Any elected government official is always included in the definition, along with those who run for office and most government employees who have a significant degree of responsibility for government decisions and actions.
What the 1964 Supreme Court decision means is that those individuals who choose to be responsible for public government action may be more heavily scrutinized by the media than other, private members of the public. The court’s ruling attempts to limit the way that lawsuits brought by government officials could hinder media scrutiny of their actions.
The Supreme Court decision established the “actual malice” standard for libel lawsuits brought by public officials. In order to prove such a case in court, a public official must not only demonstrate that a publisher printed false accusations, but did so with “reckless disregard for the truth” — the definition of actual malice. This higher standard is meant to allow news organizations to critically examine government officials without the fear of constant legal retribution.
In the 1964 Supreme Court decision, Judge William Brennan Jr. wrote, “[We] consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public officials 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.”
Federal Judge Alex Kozinski explained that without the 1964 decision, “... the media in the country would become as effective as a toothless guard dog.”
MNA Executive Director Lisa Hills said that newspaper leaders across the state have recognized the importance of the 1964 decision and retaining the right of the media to look critically at government officials. “It could have repercussions for other newspapers when reporting on a public official,” she said of the Arnold suit. “That’s a concern to all newspapers across the state.”
Anderson agreed. “I think all newspapers would stand up and carry that torch—that public officials need to be [carefully scrutinized].”