Libel: Taskett v. King Broadcasting Co.-a New Washington Standard

JurisdictionWashington,United States
CitationVol. 1 No. 01
Publication year1977

UNIVERSITY OF PUGET SOUND LAW REVIEWVolume 1, No.1FALL 1977

Libel: Taskett v. KING Broadcasting Co.-A New Washington Standard

Roy W. Kent

Prior to 1964, states developed their defamation laws without imposing first amendment restraints on damage actions against publishers. Since 1964, when the United States Supreme Court applied constitutional limits on these actions, courts have struggled to determine the proper accommodation between competing concerns for the first amendment's rights of free speech and press, and the states' interest in compensating private individuals for harm caused by defamation. In Taskett v. KING Broadcasting Co.,(fn1) the Washington Supreme Court reevaluated the constitutional limits on libel law with regard to private individuals involved in matters of public interest, and held that private individuals can recover damages "on a showing that in publishing the statement, the defendant knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known that the statement was false."(fn2) In adopting the reasonable care standard, the Washington Supreme Court sought to achieve an equitable balance between the media's first amendment rights of free speech and press and the state's interest in compensating private citizens for harm to their reputations. This comment analyzes the court's reasoning, determines whether the court has adequately protected the competing interests involved, and suggests a better approach to reconcile these interests.

The plaintiff in Taskett owned an advertising agency that placed business ads with radio and television stations. He brought a libel action for damages caused by defendant's newscast allegedly depicting him as a thief and swindler.(fn3) The plaintiff claimed the newscast was libelous per se and wholly unfounded in fact.(fn4) The trial court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, relying on Miller v. Argus Publishing Co.,(fn5) which required plaintiffs to establish by clear and convincing evidence that defendant knew the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.(fn6) The Washington Supreme Court reversed, overruling Miller.(fn7) The court based its decision on the United States Supreme Court holding in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.(fn8) that states could adopt their own standards for libel actions brought by private individuals as long as they did not allow liability without fault.(fn9)

Prior to 1964, courts considered libel unworthy of constitutional protection;(fn10) publishers printing materials susceptible of a defamatory meaning did so at their peril,(fn11) although a privilege of fair comment on matters of public interest and concern existed if the published information had a substantial basis in fact.(fn12) Concerned that a rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions would lead to self-censorship, the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. u. Sullivan(fn13) first enunciated federal constitutional limits on state defamation law. Realizing some erroneous statements inevitably occur in free debate,(fn14) the Court concluded that the fair comment privilege's truth requirement did not provide adequate protection for the news media's constitutional rights of free speech and press. The Court therefore held that the first amendment protects comments critical of a public official, which relate to his official conduct,(fn15) unless the plaintiff proves the publisher made the statement "with 'actual malice'-that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."(fn16)

The Court found public debate essential to self-government and, therefore, protected by the first amendment.(fn17) Focusing on the public official's decision-making role in society, it recognized that citizens have a legitimate and substantial interest in the conduct of such persons because in the American system of democracy the people govern themselves.(fn18) To effectuate the public's role in self-government, avenues of communication must stay open between the citizens and their representatives in government.(fn19) People must therefore have access to and be free to discuss information and opinions.(fn20) The Court reasoned that unencumbered public discussion may make elected officials more responsive to public opinion, thereby bringing about lawful governmental and social changes.(fn21) To ensure free dissemination of information to the public, the Court concluded the media must be given constitutional protection.(fn22)

The Court balanced the media's interest in freedom of press and speech against the states' interest in compensating a public official for harm to his public reputation and good name. These state interests affect the opinion others in the community may have of the individual.(fn23) Injury to these interests may mean business, professional, political, and social ruin. Although a person's right to the protection of his reputation is a "basic of our constitutional system,"(fn24) the Court in New York Times subordinated it to the needs of freedom of speech and press vital to maintaining self-government.

In Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts,(fn25) the United States Supreme Court expanded the New York Times rule to all libel actions brought by public figures.(fn26) Although all nine Justices stated that some protection should be given to defendants of libel actions brought by public figures, only three Justices favored extending the New York Times rule. Justices Black and Douglas joined in this extension only to permit a disposition of the case, opining that the first amendment was designed to leave the press absolutely free from the harassment of libel judgments.(fn27) Four Justices preferred an objective standard of highly unreasonable conduct rather than the subjective reckless disregard standard.(fn28)

In Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc.,(fn29) a plurality of the United States Supreme Court extended the New York Times standard to private individuals, holding libelous statements about a private individual involved in a matter of public concern privileged unless the plaintiff establishes defendant's reckless disregard. The plurality determined that the first amendment right of free speech is not destroyed merely because the statement involves a private individual. In contrast to New York Times, however, Rosenbloom focused on the subject matter of the alleged defamatory remark, finding that the public's primary interest is in the event and the participant's conduct rather than the partici- pant's prior anonymity or notoriety.(fn30)

Although state and federal courts widely accepted the Rosenbloom plurality opinion's extension of the New York Times test to private individuals involved in public matters,(fn31) the United States Supreme Court rejected it in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.(fn32) The Gertz majority found the Rosenbloom plurality's approach inadequate to protect the state interest in furnishing a remedy for wrongful injury to private reputations.(fn33) The Court declared the public interest test for determining the applicability of the New York Times standard unacceptable because it forced trial courts to decide which issues were of general or public interest. Such ad hoc determinations, the Court reasoned, inadequately serve both the private individual's right to recover damages for injury to his reputation and the media's first amendment rights of free press and speech.(fn34) When a trial court decides a particular controversy is a matter of public concern, the plaintiff must satisfy the stringent New York Times actual malice test. If the trial court finds the published material did not relate to a matter of public concern, however, the publisher could be liable even if he exercised extreme caution to ensure the statement's accuracy.(fn35) This subjectivity, the Court reasoned, leads to uncertainty for publishers who, rather than risk liability, may not publish at all.

Stressing the state's legitimate interest in compensating private individuals for harm to their reputations, the Court in Gertz held states could adopt their own liability standards for defamation actions brought by these individuals.(fn36) To obviate media self-censorship, the Court abolished the common law concept of strict liability for private defamation, and prohibited liability without fault.(fn37) Additionally, because the state interest includes only compensation for actual injury, the Court held that plaintiffs cannot recover presumed or punitive damages in the absence of a showing of reckless disregard.(fn38)

In Taskett v. KING Broadcasting Co.,(fn39) the Washington Supreme Court agreed with the Gertz majority that the reckless disregard standard, applied to private individuals, imposed an unacceptable burden.(fn40) In its place the court held:[A] private individual, who is neither a public figure nor official, may recover actual damages for a defamatory falsehood, concerning a subject of general or public interest, where the substance makes substantial dangers to reputation apparent, on a showing that in publishing the statement, the defendant knew or, in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known that the statement was false, or would create a false impression in some material respect.(fn41)

Taskett thus adopted Gertz's suggested focus on the plaintiffs' individual status rather than Rosenbloom 's...

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