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Official Loses Defamation Case Against Newspaper

(CN) - A Massachusetts newspaper did not defame a sewer department official who was fired in the wake of allegations that he stored inappropriate images on his work computer, the state Supreme Court ruled.

James Howell was suspended and eventually fired as superintendent of the Abington sewer department after police seized his home and work computers.

The Enterprise, a daily newspaper, launched a thorough investigation, publishing 11 articles about the Howell story.

Howell sued the paper for defamation, claiming reporters had relied on anonymous sources. He also objected to the newspaper's frequent linking of his case with that of another official from a neighboring town who was accused of storing child pornography on his computer.

The trial court denied the newspaper's request for summary judgment, saying the courts must determine whether the articles were fair or whether the reporters meant to inflict emotional distress.

Reversing, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Enterprise is entitled to summary judgment.

"The privilege to report official actions would mean very little ... if to qualify for its protection, the media were limited to reporting such actions solely on the basis of on-the-record statements by high-ranking (authorized to speak) officials or published official documents," Justice Robert Cordy wrote.

The justice also ruled that Howell was not damaged by the references to the other official.

"No reasonable reader could have concluded that the Enterprise was commenting on Howell when it reported on (the other official)," Cordy ruled.

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