TALLAHASSEE — Florida's free press could be paralyzed if the courts affirm an $18-million judgment against the Pensacola News Journal for publishing a true story about a man who shot and killed his wife while a divorce was pending.
That was the claim from Robert C. Bernius, a Washington lawyer arguing Thursday before the Florida Supreme Court for the newspaper in a case with important consequences for Florida journalism.
The case involves a few paragraphs that appeared in the middle of a story about Joe Anderson, a Dixie County man who owned one of the state's largest paving companies.
The News Journal was writing about environmental issues surrounding Anderson's paving company in 1998 and reported that while on probation for mail fraud, Anderson shot and killed his wife with a 12-gauge shotgun just days after Anderson filed for divorce. The story said law enforcement officers concluded the shooting was a hunting accident.
Although accurate, the information inserted in the middle of a story about the paving company inflicted emotional distress on Anderson by portraying him as his wife's killer, argues Bruce S. Rogow, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents Anderson.
Instead of alleging libel and defamation, Anderson accused the newspaper of putting him in a "false light," and in 2003, a Pensacola jury awarded him $18-million. False light has never been recognized as an action for seeking damages by Florida's highest court.
The 1st District Court of Appeal overturned the verdict because the suit was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations that applies to traditional libel and defamation suits. Lawyers for Anderson argue that a four-year statute of limitations should apply to a false light claim.
On Thursday, high court justices questioned whether newspapers should be punished for accurate reporting where no malice or reckless disregard of the truth is alleged. They questioned how an editor would be able to determine in advance that true information would inflict actionable damages on an individual.
"If you can sue somebody for making a true statement, it seems that would be a great impediment to free speech and freedom of the press," said Justice Charles T. Wells.
"Isn't the false light standard awfully vague for the courts and juries to apply with precision?" asked Justice Harry Lee Anstead. "Generally speaking we've been a society that's supposed to have a thick skin, and this is a thin-skinned standard."
The Pensacola newspaper case was linked with a second case involving a lawsuit against the group Jews for Jesus. A Palm Beach County woman alleged that one of the group's newsletters made it appear that the woman was a convert to Christianity. That lawsuit was dismissed by the trial court and the 4th District Court of Appeal asked the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether Florida allows false light-invasion of privacy lawsuits.
The Gannett Co., owner of the News Journal, drew support from Florida's First Amendment Foundation and other newspapers that say the court's decision could eviscerate First Amendment protections and limit the ability of newspapers to inform the public.
The court did not immediately issue a ruling.
Lucy Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.