The Boston Herald Loses a Libel Suit

What will the effect of rulings like these be on media organizations covering legal issues?

A jury ruled against the Boston Herald on Wednesday in a libel suit brought by a woman who said the paper falsely reported that she had engaged in “sexual acts” while visiting an inmate at Bridgewater State Prison in 2009. It’s worth taking a closer look at the case and considering what impact, if any, the ruling will have on the coverage from the paper and other media organizations in the future.

In 2009, the Herald reported that state Representative Gloria Fox, a Roxbury Democrat, was “… under state scrutiny for allegedly sneaking a murderer’s girlfriend—previously bagged for engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with the killer con—into a state prison in Bridgewater.” Joanna Marinova, the “murderer’s girlfriend” who accompanied Fox to the prison, sued the Herald, saying the paper had libeled her. The Herald was referring to an incident in which the prison had disciplined convicted murderer, Darrell Jones, for kissing Marinova and rubbing her leg. Marinova herself hadn’t been “bagged” for anything, and the discipline against her boyfriend was later dropped as the actions did not qualify as “sexual acts’’ under corrections rules.

The Herald messed up, the jury decided Wednesday. After deliberating for about 15 hours, jurors decided that three parts of the story were false and  two of them defamed Marinova, the Globe writes.

“In my opinion, they did what any great jury should do—search for the truth,” Marinova wrote to Boston magazine in an email.  “I feel completely vindicated by their verdict which clearly found that what was reported about me was false, defamatory and published by the Herald with malice.”

Among the arguments the Herald‘s lawyers made in the paper’s defense was that they have the right to a fair report privilege, meaning that anyone can report on official proceedings, even if the content of those proceedings give readers an unjustly negative opinion of a person, according to Jeffrey Pyle, a media lawyer at Prince Lobel who is familiar but unaffiliated with the case. The disciplinary report the Herald quoted when it referred to “sexual acts” is official. Therefore, the Herald said, it isn’t responsible for quoting from it.

The question then becomes whether the Herald met its responsibilities by leaving out that the content of the disciplinary report was later dismissed and by failing to describe the alleged “sexual acts,” leaving it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. A jury this week decided that, no, the Herald hadn’t met its obligations and had libeled Marinova.

This is the second time in recent years that Boston attorney David H. Rich has been part of a team that won a libel case against the Herald, the first being the $2 million verdict on behalf of now-retired Superior Court judge Ernest B. Murphy.

<"The danger of cases like this is and verdicts like this is that they can inhibit the reporting of news regarding official actions," Pyle said without expressing an opinion on the merits of the jury's verdict in this particular case. "And in today’s world, the media is expected to report on legal developments and developments on cases at breakneck speed." Whether or not the Herald deserved this verdict, it might have a cooling effect on other organizations trying to cover complex legal issues without the funds to pay up should their reporters make a mistake, he worried.

The Herald, which will no doubt appeal, issued a statement saying “… its article was entirely correct, from its headline to its last line. The article was meticulously researched, carefully written and extremely well-documented. We are proud of it, and of the journalist who wrote it.” Still, the paper has still likely re-learned a lesson about the care it has to bring when publishing unflattering info on its front page. But whether a judge upholds a jury’s verdict on appeal will be interesting to watch.

The paper’s penchant for salacious stories makes it a frequent punching bag, no more so than in times when it connects “sexual acts” to an elected official, only for us to learn that the sex acts were a kiss and the touch of the knee. But the Herald is also a good example of a publication that hasn’t abandoned its mission to hit public officials hard. The hope is that we all learn to be cautious without backing off from that kind of mission out of fearing an unfriendly jury.