ASNE Launches Push To Limit Libel Suits p.42

By: kelvin childs Push for state-by-state adoption of Uniform Correction Act
comes as number of cases going to trial grows
AS NATIONAL AUTHORITIES report that more libel trials occurred in 1997 than in any year since 1993, the American Society of Newspaper Editors has proposed new laws to provide publishers relief from such legal actions.
Incoming ASNE president Edward L. Seaton said the organization will push for the state-by-state adoption of the Uniform Correction or Clarification of Defamation Act. The act would limit liability in a libel suit to actual damages if a correction is published within 45 days of receiving a complaint.
Seaton, editor in chief of the Manhattan Mercury of Kansas, was installed April 3 as ASNE president at its 75th convention, in Washington, D.C. He succeeds Sandra Mims Rowe of the Oregonian of Portland.
ASNE's push against libel suits comes a few weeks after the Libel Defense Resource Center reported that the number of libel cases going to trial increased from 16 in 1996 to 22 in 1997. Eleven of those ? 50% ? resulted in jury findings against the news organization. The median jury award was $310,000; the median punitive award was $401,250.
Industry spokesmen have expressed concern that the increasing size of libel awards will motivate more suits against news organizations, regardless of the actual merits of their case.
Seaton told E&P that if the Uniform Correction Act was passed in all 50 states, "it would change the landscape of libel laws." The Uniform Correction Act was proposed by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in 1994.
The act does not require publishers to make corrections, but it would call for quick corrections when warranted. Newspapers often correct themselves when unmistakably wrong, Seaton said, but in gray areas, lawyers often advise not to. In many states, plaintiffs can exploit an admission of error to their benefit.
Thirty-one states have some kind of retraction statute, but "most are worse than having nothing on the books" because they don't exclude punitive damages if a correction is made, Seaton said. North Dakota has already passed the Uniform Correction Act, and California and Nevada have passed similar statutes excluding wire services from such protection.
"One of the benefits of this is that, as a uniform act, it discourages amendment," Seaton said. The concern is that it might pass in a given state and some media-bashing senator would attach amendments to it that would undermine it or otherwise make things worse for publishers, he said. "We'll take the position that if it's going to be amended, we'll take it off the table."
Seaton also said the law will help newspapers enhance their credibility. "The principal reason people file libel suits is to get a correction," he said. "The prompt correction will benefit the public in that it will restore damaged reputations." The law also would allow an aggrieved party to recover out-of-pocket costs.
?(Edward L. Seaton, ASNE president and editor in chief of the Manhattan (Kan) Mercury) [Photo & Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher April 18, 1998) [Caption]


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