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Court upholds right of reporters to rely on anonymous sources in stories about closed-door official meetings

The Supreme Judicial Court today threw out a libel suit against the Brockton Enterprise for its reporting on the firing of a town sewer director, saying that anonymous comments published by the paper about closed-door hearings were protected under a long established press privilege to cover "official actions and statements."

At issue were stories the paper published in 2005 about the firing of James Howell, the Abington sewer manager, for storing sexually explicit images and records related to his own business on town computers.

The court cited "a privilege for fair and accurate reports of official actions and statements" long upheld by Massachusetts courts. The court said that even if defamatory statements were made about Howell at meetings - and even if those meetings were behind closed doors - the newspaper could not be held responsible for reporting on what was said as long as it was fair and accurate in its coverage, even if its source was anonymous.

A textbook form of an official action or proceeding is a public hearing before a judge or the Legislature or some other governmental body. However, consistent with our indorsement of the public supervision rationale, the privilege also covers proceedings and actions taken out of the public view so long as they are official.

The court, which dissected each of the articles by the Enterprise, added that although the paper may have made one major gaffe in one story, it did not detract from the paper's overall accuracy in reporting Howell had been fired for the files found on his computer. Plus, as town sewer director, Howell was a "public figure" and so had to prove the paper acted with "reckless disregard for the truth," which the court ruled it did not - even when it mentioned in some stories unrelated but similar charges filed against a worker in another town around the same time.

Complete decision.

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