22. PRECEDENT-SETTING PRE-PUBLICATION SLANDER SUIT
It all started with rumors about "fiscal improprieties and moral
misconduct" at a Northern California Christian School.
John Trumbo, a 34-year-old reporter and editor at the Grass Valley
Union and a born-again Christian, hears about the rumors and starts
to investigate. One of his contacts informs the school it is the object
of a newspaper investigation.
Shortly after, a slander suit is filed against the paper alleging that
Trumbo said the schools minister was a drug addict, that his "personal
life was a shambles," and that his daughter was "walking the
streets for immoral purposes."
The story was never published and John Trumbo made legal history in
California as the first reporter to be sued for defamation without having
written a word.
In early 1982, it was announced that the Reverend William Mansdoerfer,
a 48-year-old evangelist and radio preacher, had settled the $5.4 million
precedent-setting suit for a reported $275,000. Trumbo already had resigned
from the paper saying that "My idea of First Amendment rights obviously
doesn't square with the Union's."
Newspaper representatives and reporters are concerned that the success
of this case could prove a potent weapon to muzzle investigative reporting.
Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California Newspapers Publishers
Association, said that using pre-publication suits as a tactic could
impede "publication of stories that people or organizations don't
want published about themselves. It has the effect of a retraction letter
Steve Shiffrin, professor of constitutional law at UCLA, said he expects
the courts to be quite leery of imposing liabilities on a working reporter
trying to investigate a story," but noted that "if these action
are encouraged by the courts, it could open the floodgates for others."
Which indeed, it seems to have done. The Contra Costa (California)
Times subsequently was sued by Lafayette Morehouse, a communal organization,
which (prior to publication) claimed it was slandered. Francke believes
that Morehouse got the cue from the Mansdoerfer suit and calls it a
"clear attempt at intimidation of reporters." Nonetheless,
the Times printed its story.
While the threat of multi-million-dollar libel judgments already has
had a chilling effect on the media, the possibility of prepublication
legal suits may prove to be even more ominous for a free press.
California Magazine, June 1982, "Kill That Story," by Paul