TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The New Jersey Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday challenging a lower court’s ruling that threatens to suppress news reporting on court proceedings. The ruling stripped reporters of their traditional privilege to report on court matters without having to verify the truth of factual allegations made in court.
The original case, Thomas Salzano v. North Jersey Media Group, centers on the Bergen Record’s reporting from a bankruptcy filing that Salzano “unlawfully diverted, converted and misappropriated funds” from a Newark-based telecommunications company for his personal use.
Those allegations proved to be false, but the article ran with the headline, “Man accused of stealing $500,000 for high living.”
Several media organizations, including Courthouse News Service, have joined in challenging the ruling, which found that the newspaper cannot assert the fair reporting privilege for the coverage because that privilege does not extend to preliminary pleadings. The high court stayed pending appeal.
Bruce S. Rosen, attorney for North Jersey Media Group, told the New Jersey Supreme Court that it is the “job of the press to report on bankruptcy filings” and that the cases should be made immediately available to the media to cover regardless of their accuracy, as it could take “months or years” to discern a filing’s merits.
He added that “the press can’t be expected to investigate the truth of allegations,” as they are “clearly not equipped” to do so.
Rosen said that the original report of the claim was accurate and fair; and he suggested the court impose tougher sanctions against frivolous lawsuit filers to prevent reporting of such fabrications.
When asked by Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto about whether a retraction or correction was printed, Rosen said the paper had not published one. Rivera-Soto responded that the newspaper “has a responsibility to correct reporting.”
Rosen said the plaintiff never asked for a retraction. He said the newspaper did not want to write anything about pending litigation against it when the defamation suit was filed.
He said that by denying media access to lawsuit filings, the could would “deny their ability to perform their traditional function.”
Justice Barry Albin asked the defense if they wanted “absolute privilege,” meaning that even if information in a filing is false, a newspaper wold not be liable so long as the report of the filing is accurate.
Rosen said the problem is not the Fair Report Privilege, but what plaintiffs say in a lawsuit. “We’re the messenger,” Rosen said.
Salzano, the plaintiff in the underlying case, who is representing himself, said he learned of the lawsuit through the newspaper.
He said he was given no prior notice by any court, and that the reporting was based on an electronic filing. Salzano said a company trustee “misidentified” him, and that the newspaper never contacted him about the story despite its claim that he was “unavailable.”
The “court document didn’t say I was accused of stealing anything,” Salzano said, in objecting to the headline. He said the article “took allegations from a bankruptcy complaint and fabricated them into a criminal case” that was “above and beyond what was alleged against me.”
He said that the terms “diverted” and “misappropriated” have very different meanings in a bankruptcy filing than they do in a civil case, and that the reporter should have known the difference.
Rosen closed his argument by saying that “reporters aren’t lawyers,” and that they would need years at law school to fully understand what they are reporting on.
Rivera-Soto countered by saying reporters “aren’t children” who “should know what they’re doing,” and that the defense’s excuse “sounds a lot like willful ignorance.”