Newspapers that publish advertisements featuring political speech have broad protection against libel actions, according to an attorney with expertise in media law matters.
Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne attorney, said while the Buffalo Bulletin can be held liable for statements contained in an advertisement that ran on its pages, anyone suing the newspaper over the ad would have to meet a high standard to prove the newspaper acted recklessly in publishing the comments.
“Speech about politics is really core speech and is the most protected under the First Amendment,” he said. “We want people to be able to be free to engage in political discourse.”
Moats’ comments came in reaction to a lawsuit filed last week by the Patriot Conservatives of Johnson County against the Buffalo Bulletin over an ad that it published on Aug. 12.
The group had been opposed to a proposed 1% special use tax that was defeated by voters Tuesday.
The advertisement questioned the truthfulness of the organization, citing incidents in which the group was accused of engaging in political activity at a farmer’s market despite being told not to do so and scheduling a political rally in a civic center despite telling the center’s managers they were planning a recital.
“If the Johnson County Patriots will lie about small things, what else will they lie about,” said the ad.
There was no indication of who paid for the ad.
The organization responded with a lawsuit seeking $36 million in damages from the Bulletin and claiming the ad was “defamatory on its face and nothing but reckless disregard for actual facts.”
The group alleged the ad was meant to make it look bad as it campaigned against the tax.
Newspapers can be held responsible for ads that appear on their pages, Moats said, but the in matters involving politics, before damages can be collected, the newspaper must be proven to have acted with a reckless disregard of the truth.
“You’ve got to show some negligence, some failure by the newspaper to adhere to journalistic standards,” he said.
The lawsuit also does not name any individuals who were harmed by the advertisement, Moats said.
“The allegation is they were defamed by the ad saying that they lied,” he said. “A person has to lie. The association can’t lie.”
The group would also have to prove that the comments included in the advertisement were false, Moats said.