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Attorneys have right to inform news media

Nov. 11, 2004


A long-recognized doctrine called "judicial privilege" that protects attorneys who file lawsuits from being sued for slander or libel over accusations made in court that are reported in newspapers may disappear after an Oct. 20 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court ruling involved attorney Kevin W. Gibson, an attorney who faxed a copy of a legal malpractice suit to a reporter for The Legal Intelligencer in Philadelphia. The case's defendant sued over what he said were false allegations made in the suit. The defendant claimed Gibson "opened himself up to a libel claim by providing a copy of it to the reporter," reported.

A judge initially tossed the case out because of the "chilling effect" barring attorneys from forwarding copies of lawsuits to the press would have on newsgathering. The Philadelphia Supreme Court ruled 4-2 to reinstate the case. The October ruling decided that Pennsylvania's constitution doesn't recognize press protection, called the "neutral reportage privilege" which, in some states, protects news organizations from being sued for reporting defamatory comments made by public figures, as long as the media do it in a fair and balanced way, reported. The rights lawyers have inside the courtroom to litigate passionately dissolve outside the courtroom, the state's supreme court ruled.

The Lariat editorial board disagrees with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling. We believe lawyers have every right to forward cases, whether they concern motor ticket violations or murder charges, to reporters and media outlets. Just as a public relations firm has the protected right to send out information to members of the media, so should lawyers.

There is nothing legally wrong with a lawyer sending out requested information that can be accessed by the general public. If these cases were sealed or unavailable to citizens outside the courtroom, we would see the problem. It seems the court has done a disservice to both the members of the media and the lawyers by limiting the interaction between the groups.

Editorial Board 4-1