PA Courts Back Corruption-Trial Reporting

     HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — A Pennsylvania newspaper defeats defamation claims for reporting on the arrest of a Democratic politician who was ultimately acquitted.
     The Express: Lockhaven.com is a print and online newspaper published in the central Pennsylvania city of Lock Haven.
     After Clinton County commissioner Adam Coleman was arrested in 2011, The Express published numerous articles on his case.
     Coleman was ultimately acquitted on all the charges against him, however, and he sued the newspaper for defamation.
     A three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel affirmed dismissal of Coleman’s suit Tuesday, seeing no evidence that the newspaper “published any false statements about him with actual malice.”
     The court that had initially awarded the newspaper summary judgment did so despite conceding that The Express’ articles on Coleman were “not the best reporting.”
     Coleman had pointed out that he was charged with diverting only $1,465 in YMCA funds, but that the articles suggested he was involved in a six-figure diversion.
     Likewise Coleman did not face a conspiracy count regarding the Lock Haven Area Elks Lodge, but the articles apparently suggested continually that he conspired to defraud this group.
     The original dismissal found that nevertheless all the articles Coleman challenged “were merely attempts to establish a background for a criminal prosecution which culminated in a jury trial.”
     Coleman was in fact charged with two counts of theft from the Elks, one count of theft from the YMCA and one count of conspiracy regarding the YMCA.
     Writing for the three-judge panel, Senior Judge Eugene Strassburger said he agreed “with the trial court that Coleman’s proof did not amount to clear and convincing evidence that defendants ‘in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of [their] publications.”
     “First, the source of the initial article was a press release from the OAG,” Strassburger wrote, abbreviating Office of the Attorney General. “Coleman has not produced any evidence to suggest that the OAG, as a governmental office, was not a reliable source.”
     Even so, the 24-page ruling notes, an Express reporter “did investigate beyond the press release from the OAG when Coleman’s lawyer claimed falsity.”
     But those documents confirmed “the information in the press release: over $100,000 was misappropriated, and Clark, Coleman, and Coleman’s mother faced charges as a result,” Strassburger added.
     Coleman said the reporters should have looked into the special agent who signed the affidavit of probable cause, but Strassburger asked “what reason defendants had to doubt the veracity of the special agents of the OAG who supplied the information”?
     Other portions of the ruling note the two-column spread that The Express devoted to the response by Coleman’s defense attorney Robert Englert after the commissioner’s arrest.
     Moreover, after the trial, The Express published a “front-page headline of ‘NOT GUILTY’ under which is a photo of Coleman and the article ‘Adam Coleman acquitted on all charges,'” the ruling states.

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