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Home > SPJ News > SPJ supports Maryland defamation requirements protecting journalists and lawyers

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SPJ supports Maryland defamation requirements protecting journalists and lawyers


1/14/2011



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For Immediate Release:

Contacts:
Hagit Limor, SPJ President, (513) 852-4012,
hlimor@spj.orgAndrew M. Scott, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 927-8000 ext. 215, ascott@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined an amicus brief seeking to uphold strict Maryland requirements for defamation claims in a case that, if reversed, could increase the number of defamation claims against journalists.

In the case Norman v. Borison, the state’s highest court will address whether an attorney who provides a fair, accurate report of information that is available to the general public and affects the public interest is able to do so with privilege and without libel. The court will also consider whether statements about a corporation directly concern someone associated with that company.

Stephen Norman was the owner, operator and an attorney for Sussex LLC, a title insurance company and defendant in a June 2007 class action lawsuit that was later re-filed in a federal trial court. The lawsuit alleged that the Metropolitan Money Store and several other companies and real estate professionals engaged in mortgage fraud.

An attorney in the lawsuit, Scott Borison, created a website that listed the parties in the case and provided links to their law firms and pleadings in the case. Although Norman’s name was only mentioned in one of those pleadings as a victim rather than perpetrator, he filed a defamation claim in Maryland state court, claiming that Borison and the other class action lawyers defamed him by talking to the press about the suit and posting court documents online.

The state appellate court affirmed a lower trial court’s ruling, holding that allegedly defamatory statements about a company are not “of and concerning” the owners or shareholders of that company. The court also affirmed that the statements were protected by a privilege that extends to papers filed and comments made during litigation and are public record.

"The court has in its power the ability to protect journalists from a burgeoning number of unwarranted defamation cases,” SPJ President Hagit Limor said. “Equally important, journalists have depended on attorneys regularly to provide records and documents of public interest and to comment and explain to provide context. We would lose an important protection should this longstanding Maryland policy be reversed."

The amicus brief, authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argues that the lower court was correct in dismissing the claims and that the underlying policy rationale requires a finding that attorneys are privileged to provide journalists with copies of legal filings as well as accurate summaries and comments on the documents.

In one of its roles as a free press and free speech advocate, SPJ initiates and joins amicus briefs to support First Amendment and open records cases. Most recently, SPJ joined a brief in a Pennsylvania libel case, protecting journalists from defamation claims years after online publication.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

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