The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that a lawsuit filed by former La Verkin Mayor Terry R. West against The Daily Spectrum, a St. George newspaper, should have gone to trial.
Utah media attorneys criticized the ruling as a blow to free speech that could hamper good journalism.West sued the newspaper after it ran three columns in 1988 that were critical of him. West contended the newspaper acted with malice in running the columns. Fifth District Judge J. Phillip Eves dismissed most of West's claims in 1989 because he believed West failed to prove malice. In First Amendment law, an editor or reporter displays "actual malice" if he runs a story despite serious doubts about its accuracy.
West said former Daily Spectrum columnist Rick Guldan and his editors had serious doubts about the accuracy of Guldan's columns about West. They displayed that doubt, West said, by consulting the paper's lawyer before at least one of the columns ran and later running a letter West wrote contradicting the column next to a subsequent column.
In a 2-1 ruling, the court agreed that those actions and others could suggest the paper's doubt about the three columns. A jury - not Eves - should have weighed the evidence and decided the case, the judges concluded.
They ordered portions of West's libel suit reinstated against the paper, publisher Don Hogun, former managing editor Brent Goodey and former reporter Guldan. The court also ordered the case to go to trial.
The court's opinion could dramatically affect the way the Utah media work and deny readers a forum in the media, said Randy Dryer, attorney for the Daily Spectrum.
Media may become reluctant to have their lawyers preview stories, he said, "and there's not enough pre-publication review as it is. This ruling tells the media: Don't be responsible and ask your legal counsel for advice, because it can then be argued that you must have had some doubt about the truth of the story or you wouldn't have asked your lawyer to review it."
The ruling may make newspapers reluctant to run some letters to the editor.
"Editors may think twice about running letters to the editor from people who believe they have been injured by a story in the media and want to explain their side of it. Editors will worry that printing the letter could be construed as evidence that they knew their story was false.
"I think the court's opinion is wrong," Dryer said. He is urging the Daily Spectrum to appeal the decision to the Utah Supreme Court.
West is an attorney who represented himself in the case. He could not be reached for comment.
Scott Matheson Jr., attorney for the Society of Professional Journalists, also criticized the opinion.
It is ironic that the court considered the paper's decision to consult a lawyer as proof of malice, Matheson said. The paper argued that the consultation showed the care it took in reviewing the column.
Guldan wrote two of the columns critical about West. In the first column, he blasted West for allegedly switching his position on a municipal power plant from opposition to support. Guldan also alleged that West inflated the value of some stolen rugs in a report to West's insurance company.
West wrote a letter to the editor rebutting Guldan's column. The letter ran next to Guldan's second column, which challenged points West made in his letter.
The third column, written by Goodey, accused West and La Verkin Planning Commission Chairman Phil Phillips of trying to manipulate the press.