Beasley Firm appellate attorney Barbara Axelrod is on a roll: last month she won a significant Pennsylvania Supreme Court case on behalf of a client injured by the reckless conduct of a ski resort employee, and yesterday she won an appeal before the Pennsylvania Superior Court in a defamation case we brought on behalf of Philadelphia City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski. The Court's opinion is available here. In addition to reinstating Councilwoman Krajewski’s lawsuit against the publishers of the Northeast Times, the case helped develop the law of “false light,” an invasion of privacy tort closely related to defamation.
In the lawsuit, Councilwoman Krajewski alleges that the Northeast Times, which is published by the same company as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, along with Fred Paul Gusoff and John Scanlon, defamed her and perpetrator in a false light by claiming she defrauded the city of Philadelphia - and thus the public in her own constituents - by staging a false retirement, thereby not only wrongly obtaining tax payers money for herself, but also leaving less money available for public projects. The Northeast times specifically said that Councilwoman Krajewski’s “ill-gotten gains” could have been used to keep open the Holmesburg Library, which was closed as part of Mayor Michael Nutter's budget plans.
In reality, as the lawsuit alleged and as the Pennsylvania Superior Court held, "the editorial makes no mention of the fact that Krajewski's DROP money consisted only of her own pension contributions plus interest and that the sum in question had been paid to her almost one year earlier." As is typical in defamation cases against newspapers, television stations, and other major media outlets, the publishers try to dismiss the case not by defending the integrity of the report - which they obviously cannot do - but by claiming that their expressions were purely their opinion.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected that argument, and explained that the "opinion" of the Northeast Times implied false facts:
We do find significant indicia of falsity in the implication of the Northeast Times' statements. Contrary to the Newspapers' assertions in this litigation, these pieces, when considered together in the context in which the paper's editors placed them, might suggest to the average reader that Krajewski acted to the detriment of her constituents in accepting a large payout of public funds that might otherwise have sustained a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. In truth, the funds paid out, with the exception of interest paid on Krajewski's underlying contributions, were not public funds, but were a mandatory payout from Krajewski's pension. Hence, they were her money. Moreover, the funds had been paid almost one year before the publicized closing of the library, and thus, could not possibly be related to it.
We find these circumstances equally probative of defamatory meaning; the paper's act of resurrecting the controversy that surrounded the payment of Krajewski's DROP account so many month's prior was of little import to the closure of the Holmesburg Library and could only serve to tar Krajewski's reputation well after she had been elected to her final term on Council. Most probably, such allegations, when publicized in a paper of general circulation, would enflame public sentiment, implying that Krajewski valued her own interest above those of her constituents and was therefore unfit to hold public office.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court additionally considered Councilwoman Krajewski’s claim that she was placed “in a false light” by the editorial and corresponding cartoon showing her holding a bag of money while the library was closed. As the Court described, "Significantly, unlike the law of defamation... false light invasion of privacy offers redress not merely for the publication of matters that are provably false, but also for those that, although true, are selectively publicized in a manner creating a false impression." The Court reviewed the latest United States Supreme Court precedent on the First Amendment and defamation law, and held that the selective recitation of “facts” and “opinion” by the newspaper could nonetheless create liability, because of the false factual pressure created.
As the Court explained:
Proof of false light does not devolve on evidence that every single statement is itself false, but rather that the scenario depicted created a false impression, even if derived from true statements. As our discussion of Krajewski's related defamation claim elucidates, significant indicia of falsity is apparent in the Northeast Times' treatment of the Holmesburg Library closing, suggesting a causal relationship the paper could not document, and an obligation by Krajewski to disgorge a meal from the public trough that, arguably, she had not consumed. Naturally, such suggestions would tend to cast her in a false light. We have little doubt that a significant number of readers would infer that Krajewski and others like her were systematically pilfering the public purse, accessing money that did not belong to them. That impression is rendered more virulent by the obvious linkage the paper's content draws between the Krajewski's participation in the DROP program and the closing of the Holmesburg Library. At very least, the page appears to suggest that Krajewski could have stopped the closing of the library had she chosen to do so and that, instead, she elected to "take the money and run."
We are gratified by the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s opinion, and we look forward to setting the record straight on behalf of Councilwoman Krajewski. In our free society, the media deserves strong protections for their First Amendment rights, but those protections do not include the right to mislead voters with false facts.