Neutral Reportage Doctrine

2012-08-08 22:13:35

Unless a defendant who defamed another came within a common law privilege, the defendant could not escape liability by claiming that the defamation was newsworthy. Furthermore, the person repeating a defamation originating with another could also be liable for defamation. To protect those who reported governmental activities, the common law created a qualified privilege as long as they provided a fair and accurate report or summary of executive, legislative, or judicial proceedings and were not solely motivated by malice. An absolute privilege already protected these public officials for what they said and wrote in the course of their duties.

With the rise of mass media some advocates sought to expand the privilege beyond the reporting of governmental proceedings to any newsworthy item. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Edwards v. National Audubon Society (1977) adopted this expanded ‘‘neutral reportage privilege.’’ The Second Circuit held that when a responsible organization makes serious charges against a public figure, the First Amendment protects the neutral reporting of those charges even if the reporter has serious doubts about their truth.

The Supreme Court has not adopted neutral reportage and most jurisdictions do not use the doctrine. Those courts rejecting it have noted that it contradicts Supreme Court decisions and that the media are already amply protected against defamation lawsuits. Uncertainty exists as to whether the doctrine extends to the defamation of private persons, how far a reporter can go in acting maliciously, or who decides what is newsworthy.


References and Further Reading

  • Dobbs, Dan B. The Law of Torts. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2000.
  • Polelle, Michael J., and Bruce L. Ottley. Illinois Tort Law. 3rd ed. Newark, NJ: LexisNexis Publishing, 2003.
  • Sanford, Bruce W. Libel and Privacy. New York: Law & Business/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Edwards v. National Audubon Society, 556 F.2d 113, 120 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1002 (1977)