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SPJ supports Indiana newspaper in appeal of $1.5 million libel suit


For Immediate Release:

Dave Aeikens, SPJ President, (320) 255-8744,
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 927-8000 ext. 211, sleadingham@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has joined other media organizations in an amicus brief initiated by the Hoosier State Press Association that defends the essential free press reporting rights of an Indiana newspaper.

On July 25, 2008, an Indiana jury awarded Clay County Deputy Sheriff Jeff Maynard $1.5 million, reasoning the Terre Haute Tribune-Star libeled the officer by printing an article that reported misconduct allegations a woman had made against him. The allegations were later found to be false.

The newspaper is appealing the verdict to the Indiana Court of Appeals. By supporting the newspaper in the amicus brief, SPJ agrees with the newspaper’s appeal that such a verdict fails to recognize the neutral reportage privilege. The privilege gives protection to journalists who neutrally report allegations between two parties, even if the allegations are later proven untrue.

“This situation is disturbing,” SPJ President Dave Aeikens said. “You have a newspaper being sued because it accurately reported about a complaint against a law enforcement officer. It is critical to the public interest that journalists be able to report issues from the public record and be free from lawsuits.”

By printing the allegations against the deputy, the Tribune-Star was following its watchdog role to monitor and report about citizens’ interactions with public officials. The evidence at trial demonstrated that the news reports in question were not published with actual malice, a necessary standard in determining claims of libel and defamation. SPJ is confident the Court of Appeals will overturn the previous verdict once it realizes the importance of the neutral reportage privilege.

In addition to HSPA and SPJ, a number of other journalism organizations are supporting the Tribune-Star in its appeal, including the Indiana Broadcasters Association, the Associated Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America.

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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