Supreme Court Move a Blow to Media

By: Gina Holland, Associated Press Writer

(AP) The Supreme Court refused Monday to block a lawsuit over a magazine’s critical safety reports about the Suzuki Samurai, a defeat for news organizations that wanted the court to clarify protections for journalists who warn about dangers from products.

The court declined without comment to consider whether the lawsuit against the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine should be stopped. The magazine had labeled the Samurai unacceptable in 1988 because of potential rollovers.

Consumers Union, which reports on the safety of products ranging from child safety seats to lawn mowers, argued that a lower court ruling in its case will silence journalists who have information about dangerous products but fear costly lawsuits.

Suzuki Motor Corp. says the magazine set out to discredit the inexpensive sport utility vehicles, known affectionately by some owners as “little mud bugs,” to make headlines and money.

A divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that Suzuki should have a chance to argue to a jury that the magazine rigged the testing of the vehicle and acted maliciously to damage Suzuki’s reputation.

The Supreme Court refused to review that decision.

The court is known for protecting First Amendment free-speech rights. The latest case asked whether judges should independently review evidence in libel cases before trial, stopping expensive proceedings if there is insufficient proof that a false statement was made with actual malice.

News groups including The Associated Press had urged the court to review the case, arguing that the public has been protected over the years by reports on the dangers of smoking and fast food, among others.

Without court intervention, “virtually any product evaluation is at risk and this valuable journalistic genre is seriously compromised,” the groups told the court in a filing.

The Samurai was first sold in the United States in the mid-1980s but sales plunged after the 1988 magazine report and other news accounts of possible dangers. The 1995 model was its last.

Carter Phillips, one of the Washington attorneys representing the carmaker, said that Consumer Reports employees designed their road tests to get the Samurai to tip, and cheered when the vehicle did so. He said the magazine then used its reports to make money, in fund raising and subscription drives. Suzuki did not sue after the original report, but it did claim “product disparagement” in a 1996 lawsuit in California.

Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, said the Supreme Court did not address the merits of the case. “But we believe it hurts consumers to let the 9th Circuit ruling stand with its chilling effect on those who report about safety and health,” he said.

Suzuki’s managing counsel, George F. Ball, said the court’s action “supports the principle that the First Amendment protects honest reporting, but it does not protect publishers from a jury trial where there is evidence that the publisher knowingly deceived its readers.”

The case is Consumers Union v. Suzuki Motor Corp., 03-281.

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