Sunday, December 27, 2009

7390: You’re Fired. That Was Easy.

From The Chicago Tribune…

The truth doesn’t count

Four years ago, the office supply company Staples accused a sales director named Alan Noonan of padding his expense reports and fired him. The company, though, didn’t let him go quietly. A vice president at Staples sent an e-mail to about 1,500 employees announcing the firing of Noonan and reminding them that compliance with company policies was not optional.

Noonan sued for libel, claiming that he had been singled out for public humiliation and that the company had acted maliciously. No other Staples employee had been called out in such a way for violating company policy.

Normally, such a lawsuit would be tossed out if the accusation against Noonan was true. The U.S. Supreme Court has held for decades that truth is an absolute defense against libel. (Noonan said he was guilty of sloppiness with his expense records.)

A judge in federal district court rejected his complaint, citing the Supreme Court standard. But Noonan appealed, and in February a federal appeals court ruled that he could pursue his claim under a century-old Massachusetts law. That law allows a libel action if a defendant was malicious in his intent, even if what he wrote was the truth.

This ruling has caused journalists to do a double take. They have long operated under the Supreme Court rule that truth is an absolute defense against libel. This ruling is dangerous, and not just for journalists. It opens the door for libel actions against all sorts of truthful speech, if a court finds that the speaker had malicious intent. Think about talk radio. Think about the comment boards on Web sites. Think about Michael Moore documentaries. Think about the e-mails you send. Think about office memos.

The appellate court finding could have a chilling effect on all of them if it stands.

The case went back to the district court, and in October a jury ruled in favor of Staples, finding that the company and its execs had not shown malice toward Noonan. He has appealed, though, arguing the jury wasn’t properly briefed on the Massachusetts law.

So this is still kicking around. It’s a case to watch as it meanders through the courts.

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