Newspaper’s Attorney Argues ‘False Light’ Case Could Chill Press

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A businessman should have an $18.3 million jury award reinstated against the Pensacola News Journal for a story that he says gave the impression he murdered his wife, although the death was ruled an accident, his attorney told the Florida Supreme Court yesterday.

But the newspaper’s attorney, Robert Bernius, said if factually accurate reporting was not protected by the First Amendment, that would have a chilling effect on the press. “If that’s actionable and results in an $18 million judgment, as it did here, it will paralyze the press,” he told the justices.

Joe Anderson Jr., founder of the Anderson Columbia road paving company in Lake City, alleged the newspaper’s use of the term “shot and killed” in a 1998 story falsely implied he had murdered his wife. The article two sentences later noted authorities determined it was a hunting accident.

Anderson successfully sued the paper and its parent company, Gannett Co., in a “false light” lawsuit, but an appeals court incorrectly ruled he had missed a filing deadline, said his attorney, Bruce Rogow.

The appeals court reversed the verdict based on the two-year statute of limitations that applies to libel and defamation suits. But a “false light” suit should be treated like invasion of privacy, which gives a plaintiff more time to sue, Rogow said.

The attorneys wouldn’t agree on the definition of a “false light” case, and even the justices seemed to struggle with what actually constituted casting someone in a “false light.”

Bernius said the only reason Anderson filed a “false light” lawsuit is because his initial libel suit was filed after the statute of limitations had run out.

“It is clearly a libel case,” said Robert Bernius.

If anything, the story would more closely fit into the category of defamation by implication, which falls under libel laws, Bernius said.

But Rogow called it the quintessential “false light” case, where everything in the article was factually correct but left the reader with the distinct impression that Anderson had murdered his wife. He said winning this case would make writers and editors more responsible in their reporting.

The high court has no timetable for a ruling.

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