WEST CHESTER, Pa. — A defamation case that some First Amendment advocates said could have a chilling effect on Pennsylvania media has been settled confidentially.
The settlement in the 1995 lawsuit against the Daily Local News of West Chester came after three days of testimony before a Chester County jury. Terms of the deal, reached on July 13, were not released.
“The case has been amicably resolved,” said Geoffrey R. Johnson, attorney for former Parkesburg Council President James B. Norton.
Norton and former Mayor Alan M. Wolfe sued the newspaper over quotes printed in April 1995.
In a story headlined, “Slurs, insults drag town into controversy,” reporter Tom Kennedy wrote that Councilman William T. Glenn Sr. accused the men of being “liars,” “criminals,” “queers,” “draft dodgers” and “child molesters.”
Norton, Wolfe and their wives all testified during the trial about the humiliation they suffered as a result of the allegations.
Former editors at the paper testified that they did not verify Glenn’s allegations but believed the story called his credibility into question. Glenn later lost his bid for re-election, which they testified was proof of that point.
Amy B. Ginensky, a lawyer representing Kennedy, then-editor William Caufield and newspaper owner Troy Publishing Co. Inc., declined to comment. The Journal Register Co., which owns Troy Publishing, also had no comment.
A Chester County jury in March 2000 awarded Wolfe and Norton each $17,500 in punitive and compensatory damages from Glenn. But jurors also decided that Kennedy, Caufield and Troy Publishing were not liable, in part because of an instruction by the trial judge concerning the “neutral reportage privilege.”
The state Supreme Court, ruling in October 2004 in Norton v. Glenn, affirmed the lower court ruling in favor of the elected officials but ordered a new trial to decide the journalists’ liability. That decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined in March 2005 to hear the case — setting the stage for this week’s retrial in Chester County.
First Amendment advocates said the decision leaves Pennsylvania media legally vulnerable when reporting comments by public figures and could chill news coverage of political campaigns, where charges and countercharges are commonplace.
The state Supreme Court in the 2004 ruling said the media have no absolute constitutional protection when reporting defamatory comments made by reputable public figures, even when describing the comments in a neutral manner.
“This decision leaves a pall over other reporters ... and the people will hear less about their public officials than I think they should,” said David Kairys, a Temple University professor of constitutional law.