Anytime you do express an opinion, it is advisable to state the facts upon which you base that opinion and keep in mind the context in which a statement is published or broadcast does not necessarily insulate you from liability. Even in areas where a reader or viewer is expecting a speaker’s opinion – such as an editorial, op-ed piece, book review or even a sports column – a false statement of fact can subject you to liability. Fair Report Privilege A “privileged” communication is one that would be libelous, under normal circumstances, but the occasion on which it is made allows the statement to be made without liability. The privilege is granted on the theory the interest of the individual being libeled is outweighed by the public interest in the proceeding or report in which the statement is made. The privilege to report about government activities may be the strongest defense to any libel action because it can shield you from liability even if a statement is false and even if the false statement injured someone’s reputation. This privilege, commonly known as the “ fair report privilege ,” provides any publication or radio/TV station (or a private person, for that matter) cannot be held liable for the publication of defamatory statements, if the published statements are a fair and accurate account of what occurred during an official proceeding or were made in an official report. The privilege applies to reports about judicial, legislative, and other official government proceedings. The privilege applies even if the underlying statements being reported upon are not true. With that being the case, you may report the content of police logs and city council minutes without fear of liability, provided your account is fair, accurate, and impartial. This same principal applies to reports about judicial proceedings and meetings of various legislative and other governmental bodies. Accounts of such reports and proceedings do not need to be verbatim accounts, but they should represent the various views expressed, assuming the views are contradictory. Take care to provide a balanced account of what you’ve read in a report or heard at a government meeting and avoid taking sides. For instance, if a council proceeding includes accusations of embezzlement against the mayor, but the mayor directly refutes the charges, a “fair and accurate” account of that meeting would reflect all the various views given and not just the as-of-yet unproved allegations. Under current Maryland law, the fair report privilege also can be lost by reporters who (1) know the statement made in a government report or proceeding is false or (2) entertain serious doubts as to its truth. The Fault Standards: Negligence or Actual Malice We all know the President of the United States, the Governor of Maryland, and even a member of the County Council must prove something extra in order to prevail in a libel lawsuit. But, what is that “something extra” and what is the higher standard of proof?
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