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Libel Suits OK Even If Libel Is Truthful

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 5 years ago | from the tap-dancing-on-the-slippery-slope dept.

The Courts 301

Defeat Globalism writes to tell us that many journalists, bloggers, and media law specialists are concerned about a new ruling by a US Court of Appeals in Boston. The new ruling is allowing a former Staples employee to sue the company for libel after an email was sent out informing other employees that he had been fired for violations of company procedures regarding expense reimbursements. "Staples has asked the full appeals court to reconsider the ruling, and 51 news organizations have filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying that the decision, if allowed to stand, 'will create a precedent that hinders the media's ability to rely on truthful publication to avoid defamation liability.' But Wendy Sibbison, the Greenfield appellate lawyer for the fired Staples employee, Alan S. Noonan, said the ruling applies only to lawsuits by private figures against private defendants, that is, defendants not involved in the news business, over purely private matters."

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301 comments

Meh (2, Insightful)

Anenome (1250374) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184269)

Hardly news, since this'll certainly be struck down \ overturned in future rulings. Trying to protect employees can go too far and become ridiculous.

Re:Meh (4, Insightful)

The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184399)

Hardly news, since this'll certainly be struck down \ overturned in future rulings.

We can only hope.

Re:Meh (2, Insightful)

interkin3tic (1469267) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184407)

Hardly news, since this'll certainly be struck down \ overturned in future rulings.

Most punditry is wrong, according to at least one scientific paper, most scientific papers are wrong, most current event news items will become irrelevant and or not current within a day. You're saying this isn't news because it will be overruled eventually? That to me doesn't make it not news, that makes it more like the other news stories.

Re:Meh (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184981)

What did any of that mean?

Re:Meh (5, Informative)

FiniteElementalist (1073824) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184519)

Looking at the article, it looks like it is even less news because the ruling is based entirely on an obscure Massachusetts state law, which would only apply to those in Massachusetts even if it was not overturned. And that law has the requirement of demonstrating "actual malice", which probably will fall flat rather quick.

This might be a bad ruling, but it seems like it is rather limited in scope and likely to be overturned regardless.

Re:Meh (5, Insightful)

ari_j (90255) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184625)

This is completely, totally, 100% non-news. It's not even a bad ruling. Here is the case timeline in a nutshell:

  1. Employee files lawsuit alleging libel based on a statement made about him
  2. Trial court dismisses the case without considering the truth of any of the employee's allegations, because even if they are all true, there is no cause of action for libel when the alleged defaming statement was true
  3. Court of Appeals reverses the dismissal based on a Massachusetts law that gives you a cause of action for libel even if the statement was true, if it was made with actual malice
  4. Next step: The trial court must consider whether the employee alleged actual malice and, if not, may either dismiss the case or allow the employee to amend his complaint to include the actual malice allegation. After that, the case can proceed and the court can decide, based on evidence, whether there was actual malice.

The key point is that the trial court here has not considered any evidence yet. It made a purely legal ruling under Massachusetts law, and it was wrong because it failed to take into account the actual malice law. The media uproar is just panic, and there is no need and likely no reason for this decision to be overturned.

The second key point is that the employee has not won the case just because of this ruling. He has a long way to go ahead of him.

Truth is a defense against libel [Re:Meh] (4, Insightful)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185181)

The key point is that the trial court here has not considered any evidence yet. It made a purely legal ruling under Massachusetts law, and it was wrong because it failed to take into account the actual malice law.

No, the key point is that the legal principle that truth is an absolute defense against a charge of libel is under attack in Massachusetts.

This principle is one of the bedrocks upon which our freedom of speech is built.

You're right that it's not a bad ruling. It's a terrible ruling.

Re:Truth is a defense against libel [Re:Meh] (3, Insightful)

greenreaper (205818) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185397)

Well, it's more that the law is terrible than the ruling, though I don't know if the judge has the power to set aside such law in this case.

"Extra! Extra! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184633)

Todd smells!"

"Aww, I already knew that..."

And thus signaled the end of the Flanders family newsletter.

Why would they do that? (4, Insightful)

qoncept (599709) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184291)

I don't see how telling people a guy did something wrong when he did could possibly be illegal, but why would they even do that? It's no one else's business. Sure, the word would probably get out anyway, but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.

Re:Why would they do that? (3, Insightful)

MightyMartian (840721) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184317)

Maybe it's nobody's business, but the fact is that if it isn't a lie, and the company didn't sign an NDA, then it shouldn't be permissible to claim you were libeled.

Re:Why would they do that? (3, Interesting)

DrLang21 (900992) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184429)

It's hard to say. There may have been a lot of inter-office controversy and rumors surrounding the employee's termination and the company felt that for the sake of preventing drama, they needed to set the story straight. Or it may have just been a rash unethical decision by an HR rep. But either way, I don't see why it would be considered libel. I hope that Staples appeals the case.

Re:Why would they do that? (5, Insightful)

eleuthero (812560) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184437)

The company has a lot to gain from this. If I were to steal something and then was caught. It would be reasonable for my company to trumpet this to all other employees along the lines of "make an example of him"

The reasoning does go deeper than just "let's gig 'em" but can include the idea that you want your employees to feel safe--"we catch criminals and can now trust those who remain"

I do not know the reasoning behind Staples' decision to broadcast the reason why, but it is more likely the first than the second. I would hope it is both. People are imperfect and we need reminders from time to time to stay on track (hopefully not often at the level of the Staple's employee but sometimes even this is appropriate).

The main reason I approve of Staples' action is with regard to references. If my friend leaves the company telling me he just got sick of the management when in fact he was stealing and then asks me for a reference at Company X where I have a friend, I need to know that he was really fired for theft or I risk losing my friend's good will.

Re:Why would they do that? (1, Flamebait)

Ethanol-fueled (1125189) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184943)

In the retail environment, everybody already knows everybody else's business. It was foolish and excessive to mention the salesman by name. Anybody who wanted to know could easily find out. Professional organizations have methods to deal with dishonesty, and humiliation shouldn't be one of them, no matter how truthful it may be.

Would it have really been that difficult to just respond like, "He is no longer with us. No comment...in other news, employees should not falsify or abuse their expense accounts.

I'm all for freedom of speech but, in today's litigous legal environment, Staples was really asking for it.

Re:Why would they do that? (5, Insightful)

lgw (121541) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185189)

If you wronged me (and I have proof, such as a judgement), then it's totally appropriate for me to tell others about this. Call it humiliation if you like, that doesn't make it wrong. You don't get a free pass to a good reputation! Don't want to be known as a thief? Here's a hint: don't steal!

Re:Why would they do that? (0, Troll)

vigmeister (1112659) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184951)

If my friend leaves the company telling me he just got sick of the management when in fact he was stealing and then asks me for a reference at Company X where I have a friend, I need to know that he was really fired for theft or I risk losing my friend's good will.

TWO FRIENDS?

You must be new here.

I don't see any risk here. You're going to lose your friends soon. Or you could turn in that shiny new geek card. Consider yourself served.

Cheers!

Re:Why would they do that? (1)

sakonofie (979872) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184555)

If there were a lot of suspected offenders of this policy, the good ole head on the pole could solve the problem and be cheaper (and safer) than firing all of them.

Re:Why would they do that? (2, Interesting)

rolfwind (528248) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184609)

It's no one else's business. Sure, the word would probably get out anyway, but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.

Perhaps he was a good performing salesmen but was taking too much from the company trough, and this was their warning to others?

You are making as if this was a private matter, like something someone does at home or a student's grades at school (also debateable), I just don't see it that way.

Re:Why would they do that? (2, Insightful)

ChrisGilliard (913445) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184653)

...the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.

I would imagine it would be a deterrent to other employees regarding "violations of company procedures regarding expenses reimbursements". So that might be the reason for disseminating the info.

Oh really (1, Insightful)

hurfy (735314) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184669)

"but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information."

How about dissuading other employees from doing the same things?
Seems like a pretty good reason to me. Are YOU going to do what he just got fired for??

Re:Oh really (1)

arth1 (260657) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185131)

There is a principle in Ius Commune that everyone should be treated as innocent until PROVEN guilty. Not ACCUSED of being guilty. The difference is immense.
That we allow companies to make their own incompatible internal laws and punish people based on them is the real problem.

Re:Oh really (1)

lgw (121541) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185237)

Right, which is why truth is a defense in libel suits (or damn well should be). Accuse someone if somthing? Potential libel. Prove it? Not. Why is this hard?

Re:Oh really (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185375)

That we allow companies to make their own incompatible internal laws and punish people based on them is the real problem.

Exactly, I thi...wait. What?

Re:Why would they do that? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184821)

an employer is not supposed to release information as to why someone was fired or terminated.

Re:Why would they do that? (1)

ramsejc (671676) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184853)

Usually, a company takes the 'safe' route, and tells all of it's remaining employees that 'so-and-so is no longer with us...' and 'there will be no gossip-talk about the reasons.' This does no good in a small company like the one I work for. We always no why someone was fired, and we usually talk about it anyways.

Re:Why would they do that? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184925)

I don't see how telling people a guy did something wrong when he did could possibly be illegal, but why would they even do that? It's no one else's business. Sure, the word would probably get out anyway, but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.

On the contrary, it has many useful purposes, mostly that it warns potential fraudsters that defrauding the company has consequences. It's reassuring to the lower employees that exceptions are not made for senior people when they screw up.

The point here (if you RTFA) is this is only the case because of an obscure, stupid turn-of-the century Massachusets law. Whether this law will survive a 1st amendment challenge will be interesting. Or the Taxachusets legislature could clean some of the old stupid laws still on their books.

Re:Why would they do that? (1)

camperdave (969942) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184971)

Apparently, the law states that if a statement is made with malice and intent to harm (regardless of whether it is true or not), then it is libel. Just because a person with chronic halitosis and national socialist leanings has unwed parents doesn't mean you get to call him a smelly nazi bastard.

Can someone define 'libel'? (3, Interesting)

Sowelu (713889) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184375)

My non-legal, everyday-speech understanding of the term 'libel' is that it means 'a lie that harms someone's reputation'. Can someone with more legal sense give a more accurate definition?

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (4, Informative)

Chyeld (713439) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184465)

Noonan filed a complaint that said Staples had defamed him and violated several employment agreements. US District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker dismissed the claim, writing that "truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action under Massachusetts law."

Noonan appealed to a three-member panel for the First Circuit, which initially upheld the ruling by Lasker. But last month it reversed itself on the libel claim, saying Noonan could pursue that part of his lawsuit because of a relatively obscure 1902 state law.

The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actual malice" by the person publishing the statement.

In ordinary discussions of First Amendment law, "actual malice" refers to the standard established in the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

In that context, it means a plaintiff who is a public figure can win a libel suit only after proving that a journalist knew a published statement was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

Sibbison - who says her client, Noonan, was a "sloppy record keeper" but not a thief - said the ruling lets him sue a company that "violated its own policies on employee privacy" through the mass e-mail.

Rather than wait for a lawyer, you can just read the relevant part of the article.

Moral of the Story - DON'T STEAL (1)

queenb**ch (446380) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184659)

If you want to steal stuff, you shouldn't be surprised you get caught. Be happy you don't live in my world. You wouldn't go to jail. You'd just have "THIEF" tattooed on your forehead in 3" high letters.

Re:Moral of the Story - DON'T STEAL (1)

Plunky (929104) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184961)

If you want to steal stuff, you shouldn't be surprised you get caught. Be happy you don't live in my world. You wouldn't go to jail. You'd just have "THIEF" tattooed on your forehead in 3" high letters.

I suspect you are flirting with my girlfriend and accuse you of theft. I even plant evidence in your car and you are convicted. Welcome to the end of your life.

Re:Moral of the Story - DON'T STEAL (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185051)

Tubby tammy the blow up doll hardly counts as a girlfriend

Re:Moral of the Story - DON'T STEAL (1)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185179)

If you do that for such a stupid reason, you *might* get away with it once or twice, but you'll get caught.

Plus most assholes that do this are actually stupid enough to brag about it.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184829)

You know your legal system is completely fucked when Judges don't even know the damn laws...

"US District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker dismissed the claim, writing that "truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action under Massachusetts law."

which was obviously false due to the law allowing the appeal. Since he was ruling on a libel case, you would expect the judge to try and look up the laws related to it before making such a declaration.

So how are we non-judges supposed to know what the damn law says?

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

noidentity (188756) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185255)

Rather than wait for a lawyer, you can just read the relevant part of the article.

IANAAR*, you insensitive clod!

*IANAAR = I Am Not An Article Reader

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (2, Insightful)

spacefiddle (620205) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185399)

Oho, what's this?

But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

Emphasis above is mine.

Motion to tag this story with "badsummary," your honor. IANAL but maybe NYCL will stop by this thread for a visit... there are some very, very important lessons here.

First and foremost, this situation arose because no one followed a procedure. Noonan, for whatever reason, did not do his expense reports right. He could be incompetent; he could be a thief; or he simply could have made honest mistakes and/or not realized how seriously those reports were being taken.

Baitler did something he'd never done before: he named someone in a termination notice. That's a /facepalm +2, +5 vs. your liability. Have a written goddamn procedure for anything related to security or liability, have people sign it, and never frickin deviate from it. If you want the right to name someone, make it part of company policy. Having NO policy covering this at all is no defense, either.

In fact, from the badsummary impression of ONOES, U GET SOOD 4 TELIN TRU, what we actually have here is "Employee fired, then singled out in a way no employee ever has been before." Now, I don't see this being a Staples problem - responsibility here seems to rest in the lap of this Baitler person who made the extremely poor decision to do something new in an area of high risk. In PA, this is an at-will state: you still can't fire someone for an illegal reason, but you can fire them for no reason at all. That is what they should have done, if they felt the expense report thing was not resolvable by working with Noonan (either because they were sick of it, or someone had a personal grudge, or because he was actually in fact stealing - all irrelevant).

What Staples can best do here now is define clear from-the-top policy about how terminations are handled. If it were me, i'd have a word or three with Baitler and look to settle with Noonan, but i imagine they'll see if Noonan's claim is allowed to be amended first before approaching him.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

Ninnle Labs, LLC (1486095) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184503)

The only thing to add really is that most definitions include the fact that it's malicious.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

Calithulu (1487963) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184511)

I can't, but there are online legal dictionaries that can give a general sense. Libel Definition [thefreedictionary.com] Based on that, I don't see how the court could have made this ruling, other than the fact that his own crime, and the subsequent email telling everyone about it, will cause his reputation harm.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184663)

other than the fact that his own crime, and the subsequent email telling everyone about it, will cause his reputation harm.

Well thats good. Staples can just counter-sue claiming this lawsuit caused their reputation harm, and since 'it being true' doesn't matter anymore, he is just as guilty.

Come to think of it, that would end all court cases, since the act of going to court to sue now breaks this law every time its done.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

MyLongNickName (822545) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184517)

let me play devil's advocate. An internal investigation says I did something. I get canned. They let everyone know I was fired for this behavior. One problem... I didn't do it.

Sure the company is within their rights to can me. Sure they are technically correct that that is the reason they fired me. But I didn't do it. Everyone now thinks I am a thief... or a pedophile... or whatever else.

And this is the reason why companies should NEVER give the reason for terminating someone. Shame on the company for doing something so stupid, even if they are right.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

Calithulu (1487963) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184623)

Except that in this case he did not fill out his expense reports correctly. It doesn't appear that anyone is denying that, including the plaintiff.

However, the only reason that this case is going forward, from TFA, is:

The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actual malice" by the person publishing the statement.

So his claim is that his boss had malicious intentions when the email was sent in spite of the claims being true. This law appears to only be a defense in Massachusetts, though.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

Ninnle Labs, LLC (1486095) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184685)

let me play devil's advocate. An internal investigation says I did something. I get canned. They let everyone know I was fired for this behavior. One problem... I didn't do it.

Except in the case of this guy being fired he did do it. So your case would be hardly analogous.

The dispute revolves around the firing of Noonan in January 2006 as regional sales director of Staples after an internal audit determined that he had overbilled the company in expense reports, failed to submit required receipts, and falsified expense reports, according to the appeals court's Feb. 13 ruling.

The dispute has nothing to do with the reasons he was fired, because they are true, but the fact that broadcasting them out is claimed to be defamation.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

LandDolphin (1202876) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185047)

I'm certainly no lawyer, but it seems hard to cause defamation of character if you tell the truth. Of course, the law never actually needs to adhear to common sense.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

Ninnle Labs, LLC (1486095) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185105)

And that's why there is all this outpouring of support for Staples because this sets a very dangerous precedent.

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

nedlohs (1335013) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184873)

If you didn't do it then the claim was false and hence is completely irrelevant to this particular instance which is all about "if Libel is Truthful" - it's in the title, surely we haven't progresses so far as to not read them either???

Re:Can someone define 'libel'? (1)

chromakey (300498) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184999)

IANAL, but my understanding is that libel is a lie that harms someone's reputation put into print. Slander is the same thing, but in non-print form.

united kingdom (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184401)

Argh. That's exactly what's wrong with the libel law in the United Kingdom. I suspect that it's deliberate by the US power elites: they probably see just how useful the fact truth isn't a defense in a libel case in the UK has been to keeping powerful people powerful.

What does the first amendment actually say? (1)

Volante3192 (953645) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184415)

Wendy Sibbison, the Greenfield appellate lawyer for the fired Staples employee, "There isn't a First Amendment right for a private company to broadcast the news of a private person's firing to its employees."
--
Yes, Wendy, but using that token, there's no first amendment right preventing a private company broadcasting the same news.

Pesky first amendment, being all vague like that...

Re:What does the first amendment actually say? (2, Funny)

internerdj (1319281) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184499)

I can't find it in the second amendment either. This is going to be harder than I thought...

Re:What does the first amendment actually say? (2, Insightful)

Hatta (162192) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184541)

Unfortunately, the Bill of Rights doesn't apply in civil cases.

Re:What does the first amendment actually say? (2, Informative)

jbeaupre (752124) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184647)

Unfortunately, the Bill of Rights doesn't apply in civil cases.

You couldn't have said it better! http://www.ushistory.org/documents/amendments.htm#amend07 [ushistory.org]

Really. You couldn't.

Hmmmm... (4, Interesting)

CannonballHead (842625) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184449)

So, can I sue various politically-driven groups for libel, even if what they say about the group I'm in is true?

Re:Hmmmm... (2, Funny)

CannonballHead (842625) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184791)

Ignore previous comment, and remind me to read the article. :)

Re:Hmmmm... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185377)

Ignore previous comment, and remind me to read the article. :)

Read the article.

Ultimate expression (1)

Shivetya (243324) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184457)

of people are not responsible for their actions. Sorry, yeah he might have been embarrassed but still he was wrong. More than likely he told others he was leaving on his own recourse or that some PHB fired him because he was too smart, too good.

What is it with people owning up to what they do? I thought we left behind that in elementary school, that idea that "not me" did it.

Re:Ultimate expression (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184613)

1, 2, 3, NOT IT!

The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (4, Informative)

XLawyer (68496) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184475)

It is incorrect to say that truth is an absolute defense to a claim of libel. Apparently, Massachusetts law allows a suit to go ahead based on defamatory statements that are based on "actual malice."

Possibly Massachusetts law is incompatible with the US Constitution in this regard. I am inclined to believe it is. But Staples never brought it up--if they had, the panel would have mentioned it in at least one their opinions, and the court didn't.

In other words, the First Amendment question simply didn't come up. The sole question was what Massachusetts law was, not whether that law was consistent with the Constitution.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184575)

The sole question was what Massachusetts law was, not whether that law was consistent with the Constitution.

If Massachusetts law is not consistent with the Constitution, then it is not law. Constitutionality should ALWAYS be taken into account when considering any law.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

XLawyer (68496) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184693)

Not if (1) there's no controlling precedent and (2) neither party brings it up. Courts rarely introduce new legal questions on their own, and appellate courts rarely consider questions that the parties didn't raise at trial. If Staples didn't raise this issue, then neither party briefed it. And if neither party briefed it, the First Circuit wasn't going to consider it, again, unless there were already clear, binding precedent from the Supreme Court.

And if there had been such precedent, Staples would certainly have raised it at the beginning, in a motion to dismiss, before it spent all this money getting to summary judgment.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

johnsonav (1098915) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184761)

Constitutionality should ALWAYS be taken into account when considering any law.

Constitutionality is usually only taken into account when one of the parties in the case makes the argument that the relevant law is unconstitutional. If Staple's lawyers didn't argue that point, the judges probably won't include it in their ruling.

Judges usually try to refrain from ruling on matters that haven't been argued.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

Hatta (162192) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184931)

Judges usually try to refrain from ruling on matters that haven't been argued.

Refraining from issuing an unconstitutional ruling should take precedence.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

johnsonav (1098915) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185385)

Refraining from issuing an unconstitutional ruling should take precedence.

Well... Yes, of course. But the point is: neither side made the argument that this law is unconstitutional. Appellate judges make judgments on issues where the two sides disagree. In this case--as neither side disputed this law's constitutionality--they really had no constitutional matter before them to adjudicate.

Absent some really clear precedent, judges can only rule on the issues presented to them. I don't think, and the judges didn't think, that the existing precedent was strong enough to declare the law unconstitutional. The unconstitutionality of this law isn't as clear as you make it out to be.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

Thelasko (1196535) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184963)

In other words, the First Amendment question simply didn't come up. The sole question was what Massachusetts law was, not whether that law was consistent with the Constitution.

In other words, the defense attorney wasn't doing his or her job.

Re:The First Amendment Didn't Come Up (1)

dfm3 (830843) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185359)

IANAL (but it appears that you are). I wonder... did this question not come up before because it would be more appropriate to raise questions about the constitutionality of a law in a higher court? Say you want to challenge this particular Massachusetts law on first amendment grounds... is it better to challenge the law on appeal than to bring up the issue in a lower court?

That's not a useful distinction (1)

JerryLove (1158461) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184477)

So it's only for private-vs-private?

What happens when Staples sues you for reporting them to the Better-Business Bureau? What happens when bad reviews on Amazon become liabel?

Its one thing if we want ot make rules about privacy, allowing a disclosure to be an invasion of said privacy; but this is a Pandora's box that I prey to his noodley goodness gets overturned.

Read the actual article (1)

Reality Master 201 (578873) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184491)

The summary makes it seem like the court just arbitrarily decided that truth didn't count as a defense for libel in this case. But that's not at all what happened; FTFA:

Noonan appealed to a three-member panel for the First Circuit, which initially upheld the ruling by Lasker. But last month it reversed itself on the libel claim, saying Noonan could pursue that part of his lawsuit because of a relatively obscure 1902 state law.

The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actual malice" by the person publishing the statement.

In ordinary discussions of First Amendment law, "actual malice" refers to the standard established in the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. ...

But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

So, this ruling is actually abouta quirk in state law, and only permits the case to move forward because under that law, there are possibly legitimate grounds to sue for libel in this case. The law is a shitty one, and needs fixing - but that's not this court's job.

Re:Read the actual article (1)

blueg3 (192743) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184543)

Further, while the law has problems, it's not completely crazy -- you have grounds for libel if it's false or if it was done with malicious intent. That seems, on its face, reasonable.

Re:Read the actual article (1)

Reality Master 201 (578873) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184635)

I don't think it's that reasonable - I'd prefer that libel and slander laws deal exclusively with false statements, as opposed to opening the door to suing someone because they were a dick to you. Legislation that bars you from lying about people is one thing; legislation that opens you up to liability because you're not nice to them is entirely another.

Re:Read the actual article (1)

blueg3 (192743) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185045)

You're addressing whether you agree with the law, not whether it is reasonable.

Re:Read the actual article (1)

Leafheart (1120885) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184831)

you have grounds for libel if it's false or if it was done with malicious intent.

The problem lies on the definition of "malicious intent" and how Massachusetts diverges from the SCOTUS definition. By their definition, if a newspaper runs an article by a whistleblower regarding some shody politicians, based on true verifiable facts, with intent to expose him and make him quit and be jailed, the politician could sue the newspaper acusing the blurb of "malicious intent", since the clear intent was to put the police and public opinion against him, and send him to jail.

Re:Read the actual article (1)

blueg3 (192743) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185121)

It certainly does have a number of problems, including what constitutes "malicious intent". It's just that it's not completely unreasonable -- as a law barring truthful statements from being reported would be.

Re:Read the actual article (1)

OneSmartFellow (716217) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185153)

Wrong !

We have special rules for reporting about people of public interest, for a damn good reason. Most of them need chopping down a peg or two on a daily basis.

Got to Love America (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184495)

Arguing about the minutae of legal issues OCD-like while your economy crashes around you. 'Deckchairs' and 'Titanic' come to mind.

Re:Got to Love America (5, Insightful)

Reality Master 201 (578873) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184559)

Yes, you're right. The fact that the economy is in the shitter is clearly the only important thing in the world, and all activity not specifically directed at correcting it should be stopped immediately. We'll begin with shutting the police and fire services, then dismissing all court cases in all courts in the US, and finally we'll halt all work on any construction or repair projects.

While we're at it, we should also do something about all the precious energy and attention we're currently exerting in our continued efforts to clothe and feed ourselves, as well as that silent thief of time, breathing.

Jackass.

Re:Got to Love America (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184795)

lolwut?

Say the minimum (1)

Midnight Thunder (17205) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184525)

In all honesty if you are going to write an e-mail announcing someone is fired, you show say so in the most diplomatic approach and say the minimum. For example:

"Joe Blogs is no longer part of CompanyX".

will suffice. Everyone else is free to read between the lines.

Truthful libel? (5, Insightful)

spellraiser (764337) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184529)

By its very definition [wikipedia.org] , libel is always untruthful.

In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. Slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images.

Semantics aside, here is the actual explanation for the ruling:

Noonan appealed to a three-member panel for the First Circuit, which initially upheld the ruling by Lasker. But last month it reversed itself on the libel claim, saying Noonan could pursue that part of his lawsuit because of a relatively obscure 1902 [Massachusetts] law.

The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actual malice" by the person publishing the statement.

In ordinary discussions of First Amendment law, "actual malice" refers to the standard established in the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

In that context, it means a plaintiff who is a public figure can win a libel suit only after proving that a journalist knew a published statement was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

So we're talking about:

1) A state law.

2) A ruling that simply allows the guy to sue; it's not a final verdict by any means.

3) A very specific instance, that will eventually be settled in court anyway, as per 2).

So, I don't think this is anything for journalists to get overly anxious over, in truth.

How can this make sense... (1)

bogaboga (793279) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184571)

...when libel is defined as a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person?

Note: Bold mine...

Re:How can this make sense... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185251)

Where does the decision that the alleged libel is false and malicious get made? We don't want people to get libel suits dismissed by just claiming "Well it's true, it's not libel". I would think the proper place to make this defense would be at the trial.

Huh?!?!? (1)

javacowboy (222023) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184585)

I didn't RTFA, but this sounds absolutely insane, and it creates a dangerous precedent.

Basically, one could now commit a whole litany of crimes in plain view of the public, and as long as law enforcement doesn't become aware (or care) about these crimes, nobody would report those crimes, assuming that one had the financial means to sue them into submissions.

Also, journalism would cease to be a meaningful profession, as meaningful investigative reporting would be too legally risky for any news organization to allow.

Re:Huh?!?!? (1)

OneSmartFellow (716217) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185099)

Basically, one could now commit a whole litany of crimes in plain view of the public,

Crimes, real crimes that is, are handled by the courts, and are a matter of public record. The reasons for being let go can be nothing more than a personality clash, hyped up as a gross dereliction of duty (or even worse). Individuals MUST be protected from corporations.

Bloggers beware (4, Insightful)

Kjella (173770) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184615)

But Wendy Sibbison, the Greenfield appellate lawyer for the fired Staples employee, Alan S. Noonan, said the ruling applies only to lawsuits by private figures against private defendants, that is, defendants not involved in the news business, over purely private matters.

Most bloggers would fall under "private persons" and not "news organizations" I'd think. So say something true that puts a person in less than favorable light on your blog, and you get a libel suit? The US just made another step in digging itself siz feet under with lawsuits.

Politicians beware (1)

Thelasko (1196535) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185049)

Next time you bring up your opponent's questionable past, you could be sued for a form of defamation.

I bit this will happen exactly once, and this obscure law will be rewritten.

The importance of middle initials (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184641)

Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University

That poor guy. To think that one letter is all that's keeping him from a complete destruction of his reputation.

Private defendant vs public defendant (1)

krappie (172561) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184675)

So what's the difference between a private defendant and a public defendant? One is just a person and the other is backed by a company?

Are we creating rules that don't apply to companies?

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD!?!?! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184757)

Almost every day there another story that makes you go "WTF, are these people completely insane!?!?!?!"

Simple common sense seems like such an outmoded concept these days, it's utterly depressing.

privacy, false light, actual malice (4, Insightful)

commodoresloat (172735) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184777)

It seems that the issue here is not just defamation and truth but also invasion of privacy. Even exposing truthful information can open one to a tort if that information is considered private and there is no reason to communicate it to third parties. In this case the court found it particularly troubling that the company violated its own policy on privacy when sending the email.

The other problem mentioned in the court opinion [uscourts.gov] itself there was also a false light issue -- even if the content of the email was true, strictly speaking, it falsely led readers to believe that Noonan not only was fired but also violated the law.

Ultimately though the court was persuaded that even if the statement was true, it was made with "actual malice." The relevant Mass. law already has an exception built into defamation law that says a true statement can still be libelous if it is made with "actual malice," and they concluded in this case that the statement was made with such intent. The definition of actual malice the court settles on is quite different from the definition generally used in US law -- rather than "reckless disregard for truth," the court concludes that it means something like "ill will." It is this definition of "actual malice" that may undermine traditional interpretations of libel law. The notion that "truth as a defense" is undermined by this case is probably an exaggeration -- that defense is already undermined by the exemption itself as it exists in Massachusetts law.

Intent? (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184859)

Does the intent of the defendant matter? In the case of a news organization, the intent is merely to inform the public of the facts. If an ex-employer releases damaging information about an employee with the intent of harming their career, then damages may be appropriate. I don't know as IANAL.

We have a judicial system for the purpose of handing out civil and criminal penalties. I'm guessing here that the courts don't want private parties to engage in a form of vigilantism by going after other's reputations.

I hate it when the law changes the meaning of word (5, Insightful)

ContractualObligatio (850987) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184881)

Wow, this story covers pretty much all the angles that annoy me about bad legal decisions:

  • Suddenly a word that had a well known meaning in the real world (i.e. libels are lies) has a different meaning in law.
  • The plaintiff is complaining about a situation in which they were the ones doing something fundamentally wrong.
  • The truth seems to be less important than the ability to use weasel words and slippery logic.
  • It encourages bad behaviour e.g. in this case sales people with expense accounts who feel they don't need to keep records, and should suffer no adverse effects if they get caught.

I'm a consultant, I claim expenses, I work with sales people who also claim expenses, and I don't see a need to be naive here. If you're sacking someone for what is essentially a free-loading lack of integrity, I don't you should be obliged by law to keep that fact hidden. True, normally it's a more respectful "John is moving on to new challenges" kind of message that goes out, but it shouldn't be illegal to let people know that bad behaviour can be caught and punished. Particularly in job roles that are typically well compensated in the context of any given employer, and where they are effectively entrusted with other people's money.

I'm assuming here that the "sloppy" record keeping means money has been claimed that wasn't supported by an appropriate paper trail. Because who sacks people for claiming less expenses than they were due? That said, it's possible this was a vindictive sacking over a minor infringement made in genuine error. But if that's the case, fight the legal battle on those grounds rather than trying to set a precedent that could have far broader impact. I gotta say my gut feel is that people who distort language so much as to say libel means telling the truth are not to be trusted...

is it truthful? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184905)

Just because an employer ALLEGES a violation doesnt mean it necessarily happened. in absence of a proper examination of the facts the matter remains an allegation and nothing more.

Remember innocence until proven otherwise?

If the company really had to say a memo it should have read:

"An employee has had to leave the company following an investigation into an alleged incident involving company procedures regarding expense disbursements."

What about privacy? (1)

cortesoft (1150075) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184913)

While I am not sure if this should be considered libel, I don't think the defense 'well it was true!' always triumphs as a legal defense. What about rights to privacy? Suppose the email had disclosed that Noonan had left his job because he had been diagnosed with cancer.. while this statement might be true, doesn't he have a right to keep some information about himself private?

Slashdot users seem to argue for privacy most of the time... they get upset with companies that share information, but never say "Well I guess it is ok if company A shares my surfing habits with company B, because after all they are my TRUE surfing habits"

While I know this is not the same issues, they seem somewhat related to me. Although on one part I agree completely... this should not be a libel case; it should be a employee privacy violation case instead.

Re:What about privacy? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185279)

Leaving because of cancer != fired because of theft.

Theft is a crime. Having cancer is not.

Re:What about privacy? (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185335)

While I am not sure if this should be considered libel, I don't think the defense 'well it was true!' always triumphs as a legal defense. What about rights to privacy?

Right to privacy is a different issue.

"It was true" is (or should be) a defense against libel-- not a defense against violation of privacy. Different things.

Had he not sued... (1)

trum4n (982031) | more than 5 years ago | (#27184935)

...this wouldn't be on Slashdot.

I just can't see the malice (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27184957)

I just can't see the malicious intent with this one. Was it stupid? Yes. If Staples had just said "he's been let go", nothing more would've come of it. It's adding the reason he was let go that's causing the problems.

How should Staples have handled it? Send the email saying "he's been let go", and then a couple days later or so send a company wide message sternly reminding people of the importance of correct paperwork and that knowingly sending in false documents can lead to punishment up to and including termination.

Yeah, right... (1)

OneSmartFellow (716217) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185039)

...imagine I was fired for sleeping with the directors daughter, who also happened to be the comptroller, and had access to my pay records (which would constitute gross misconduct, perhaps?), that doesn't mean the whole world should know that I porked her. Even the fact I was fired should be available only as a result of a direct enquiry, and I'm not even sure about that. It's not a crime to be fired from a company. In europe, (as far as I am aware) you may only ask a previous employer the following "Would you re-hire Mr. XXX"

As it should be.

Not the Intel Way (1)

Locke2005 (849178) | more than 5 years ago | (#27185083)

The way Andy Grove would do it would be to dismiss him but give him a glowing review on the condition that he go to work for a competitor (and presumably steal from them instead). How is this guy ever going to get a job at Office Max or Office Depo when Staples claims he's been stealing?

McDonalds (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185111)

Did you know that the founder of McDonalds had a disorder that made him frequently fry rats instead of chicken? T story.

He hasn't won... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#27185265)

RTFA. The court didn't say the plaintiff is right, merely that he could sue. No, this isn't proof that the country is going to hell in a handbasket, only that this jkoker can have his day in court. You can sue anyone for just about anything - that doesn't mean you'll win.

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