First Circuit Upends Accepted Understanding of Truth Defense in Defamation Cases

Last Friday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upended the generally accepted notion that U.S. defamation law does not impose liability for truthful statements.  In Noonan v. Staples, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Boston held that Alan Noonan, a former Staples employee, may hold the company liable for defamation based on a truthful email a superior sent to employees explaining the reason for Noonan's termination, so long as he can prove that the email was sent with "actual malevolent intent or ill will." 

The decision interpreted a 1902 Massachusetts statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 92, which states that truth is a defense to libel unless "actual malice is proved."  A 1998 decision of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusets, Shaari v. Harvard Student Agencies, ruled the statute unconstitutional when applied to statements of public concern, but the First Circuit refused to consider whether the SJC's reasoning in Shaari extends to statements of purely private concern, explaining in a footnote that Staples failed to properly raise the issue of the statute's constitutionality in its initial briefing. 

Robert Ambrogi, who drew our attention to the case yesterday, characterizes it as "is the most dangerous libel decision in decades."  His excellent and thorough analysis of the case is well worth a look.  There's a chance that the First Circuit will review the decision en banc (that is, with all the judges of the First Circuit hearing the case, rather than three), and the case has stark constitutional implications that make it a good candidate for Supreme Court review, but in the meantime Ambrogi's parting words are chilling: "For the time being, however, be afraid -- be very, very afraid -- of this precedent. If ill will is all that is needed to turn a truthful statement into libel, then everyone is a potential defendant."

Update:  Ambrogi has another post on the decision, and Dan Kennedy at Media Nation has penetrating analysis from media lawyer Robert Bertsche.


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