TALLAHASSEE — In a victory for Florida newspapers and freedom of speech, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a lawsuit that penalized a newspaper for publishing a story that was true.
In 2003, an Escambia County jury awarded $18-million to road-building contractor Joe Anderson after the Pensacola News Journal published a series of stories in 1998 about environmental issues surrounding the paving company he founded, Anderson Columbia.
One story mentioned that while on probation for mail fraud in 1988, Anderson shot and killed his wife in a Dixie County hunting accident, just days after he filed for divorce. Lawyers for Anderson argued that although accurate, information inserted into the middle of a story about the paving company inflicted emotional distress on Anderson by portraying him as his wife's killer.
Instead of alleging libel and defamation, Anderson said the newspaper put him in a "false light,'' a cause of action that Florida's highest court now rejects. The court also said Thursday that lower courts that have recognized false light as a cause of action were wrong.
The Anderson verdict marked one of the few times a Florida news organization had been successfully sued for damages for publishing a true story. The ruling Thursday is likely to put an end to similar lawsuits that have been filed against several other newspapers and television stations in the past few years.
In a statement distributed to the media, Anderson responded, "Today the Court shut the courthouse door to every Floridian who is falsely accused by a newspaper when they publish words that are literally true but carefully crafted to include thinly veiled accusations of wrongful conduct … The Court should be ashamed of itself for shielding the nation's largest newspaper chain, Gannett, from being accountable for its reckless actions."
The Supreme Court's decision upholds a ruling by Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal overturning the Anderson verdict, but the Supreme Court rejected the lower court's suggestion that a cause of action ever existed for false light.
Florida does not recognize claims for false light because it would offer a remedy in relatively few situations and "is outweighed by the danger in unreasonably impeding constitutionally protected free speech,'' the court said in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Barbara Pariente. The two court members recently appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, did not participate in the decision.
In a separate ruling, the court also rejected a similar ruling in a lawsuit against the group Jews for Jesus. A Palm Beach County woman alleged that the group's newsletters made it appear she was a convert to Christianity. The 4th District Court of Appeal asked the state's highest court to look at all questions involving false light claims.
The court did leave the door open for claims of defamation by implication, but First Amendment lawyers say news reporters have always known they cannot imply things that are untrue.
"This a great day, not only for the News Journal and Gannett, but also for newspapers and the media who will all benefit from this decision,'' said Pensacola president and publisher Kevin Doyle. "It's been a long experience.''
Doyle said he could not estimate how much the newspaper has spent defending the lawsuit, but lawyers for other news organizations said false light claims have cost hundreds of hours of time for lawyers and journalists and caused a great deal of unnecessary self-censorship.
"This is an incredible victory for anybody who reports or comments on issues of public concern,'' said St. Petersburg Times lawyer Alison Steele. "The sort of mud bog false light threw us into for the past 10 years has been damaging to journalism and to public knowledge and understanding."
Bruce Rogow, the Fort Lauderdale lawyer who represents Anderson, said he was disappointed at the court's ruling and does not hold out much hope for a rehearing because the decision was unanimous.
Because the decision involves a question of Florida law, any further appeal is unlikely.
Lucy Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.