Appeals court rules for Inquirer in defamation case

Posted: August 04, 2012

In a ruling in a defamation lawsuit against The Inquirer, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia found that linking to an allegedly defamatory article on the Internet does not by itself expose a publisher to charges of libel.

The case was filed by the management company of Chester Community Charter School and its chief executive, Vahan H. Gureghian, and alleged that The Inquirer published false, misleading, and defamatory statements about the school and Gureghian.

The original lawsuit was filed in early 2009 and the case initially was terminated after the newspaper filed for bankruptcy. However, during the bankruptcy proceedings, and after the one-year statute of limitations had expired on the original claim, the plaintiffs sued again after an Inquirer column linked to a website with the articles.

Gureghian, a lawyer and Republican fund-raiser, asserted that the paper had republished the allegedly defamatory information.

But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected that reasoning in a 27-page opinion issued Thursday.

The court said that under Pennsylvania libel law, publishers are typically responsible only for the one instance in which the offending material is published, and can be sued again only if the information is substantially repackaged and reissued. Simply linking to the original article on a website does not meet that standard, the court said. The court added that in this instance, because the one-year statute of limitations on the original claim had expired, the matter could not be revisited.

"A publisher would remain subject to suit for statements made many years prior and ultimately could be sued repeatedly for a single (harmful) act" if simply linking to an allegedly defamatory article were grounds for a suit, the court said.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the decision constitutes an important legal clarification for publishers in Pennsylvania.

"This holding is a significant victory for newspapers, and it is the first appellate court opinion on this issue decided in the context of Pennsylvania's defamation statute," Melewsky said. "The holding is critical because if a link or links with a favorable reference were an act of republication, the statute of limitations could be, in the court's words, "retriggered endlessly."

Edmond M. George, a lawyer with the firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P., who handled the appeal for Gureghian, did not return a phone call for comment.

Gureghian said in the original lawsuit that failed business talks between himself and former Inquirer publisher Brian Tierney were the impetus for critical coverage of the charter school, an assertion denied by the newspaper.

In its articles, The Inquirer cited state records showing that the publicly funded charter school was one of the highest spenders among charter schools on business and administrative costs and among the lowest on instruction.

The Inquirer won the initial battle over Gureghian's defamation claim in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, triggering an appeal to the Third Circuit and Thursday's decision.


Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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