The New Jersey Supreme Court recently decided a defamation lawsuit against a weekly New Jersey newspaper, finding that it was not liable for a false front-page teaser. The central issue in Ronald Durando and Gustave Dotoli v. The Nutley Sun and North Jersey Media Group, Inc. was whether the editor of the newspaper acted knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth or simply had too much on his plate.
The Facts of the Case
As detailed in the opinion, the defamation lawsuit arose after the Nutley Sun inaccurately printed a front-page “teaser,” reporting that “two local men” (the plaintiffs) had been arrested for stock fraud. In reality, the two men were charged in a complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, but they had not been arrested.
As noted in the opinion, those who read the full article learned that plaintiffs were the subjects of a civil complaint alleging that they were involved in a pump-and-dump stock scam. The article itself did not suggest that the plaintiffs had been arrested.
Plaintiffs filed a civil action against defendants, the newspaper and its parent company, alleging, among other things, defamation and false light. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, finding that plaintiffs could not establish that the teaser was published with actual malice, and the decision was later upheld by the Appellate Division.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision
In issuing its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court highlighted that New Jersey’s common law, which is grounded in the the free-speech and free–press guarantees of Article I, Paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution, provides enhanced protection to speech involving matters of public concern. As such, the actual malice standard— knowing that the statement is false or recklessly disregarding the truth—must be applied in these cases.
The Supreme Court further noted that although the reckless-disregard-for-the-truth prong has been defined in a variety of different ways, the core principle has remained constant: establishing reckless disregard requires a showing that the defendant made the statement with a “high degree of awareness of [its] probable falsity.” Finally, the Supreme Court emphasized that the test is subjective, not objective, and involves analyzing the thought processes of the particular defendant.
Using this analysis, the Supreme Court found that a reasonable jury could not conclude that the editor’s conduct was so reckless that it “approache[d] the level of publishing a knowing, calculated falsehood.” It also placed emphasis on the fact that the plaintiffs were not named in the teaser.
While it dismissed the case, the Court did point out that the editor failed miserably at his job, characterizing his editing as “shoddy.” It further stated that the editor was “undoubtedly careless in composing the erroneous front-page teaser.”