Penn. Court Decision May Limit Lawyer-Press Dealings

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(AP) Lawyers who offer to help reporters by sending them copies of court documents by fax or e-mail do so at the peril of losing their immunity to defamation suits, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled.

Under a long-recognized doctrine called “judicial privilege,” attorneys who file lawsuits — even frivolous or malicious ones — are protected from being sued for slander or libel over the accusations they make in court.

The idea is that lawyers need to be free to litigate vigorously, without fear they will themselves be sued for defamation if their case ultimately is rejected. But in an Oct. 20 decision, the state Supreme Court said that those protections largely evaporate once an attorney steps outside a courthouse.

The ruling involved attorney Kevin W. Gibson, who faxed a copy of a legal malpractice lawsuit to a reporter for The Legal Intelligencer, a newspaper that covers legal affairs in Philadelphia.

The defendant in the case sued, claiming the allegations in the suit were false, and that Gibson opened himself up to a libel claim by providing a copy of it to a reporter.

A judge initially tossed out the defamation case and ruled that barring attorneys from forwarding copies of lawsuits to the press would have a “chilling effect” on newsgathering.

The Supreme Court voted 4-2 to reinstate the case.

The court suggested in a footnote that reporters who want copies of court complaints may simply pick them up at the courthouse in person, or find a clerk willing to provide them.

The ruling is one of two the court has made recently that could make it harder for journalists to gather and report the news.

In late October, the state Supreme Court decided that Pennsylvania’s constitution does not recognize a press protection called the “neutral reportage privilege.” In some states, the privilege prevents news organizations from being sued for reporting defamatory comments made by public figures as long as the media do it in a fair and balanced way.

“This is one in a growing list of decions by this court that are contrary to the public’s right to access public information,” said Teri Henning, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. “These are public documents. They are available to anyone who goes to the courthouse.”

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