August 21, 2019

Newspaper Protected by Anti-SLAPP Statute; Pack v. Truth Publishing Co., Inc.

Category: Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

Americans have a First Amendment right to speak their minds about public issues, but this does not protect them against defamation claims designed to shut them up. Indiana has passed a statute to deal with this situation, an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute. And a defendant who successfully invokes this statute may obtain attorney’s fees. This case provides an example of the kinds of protections that Indiana’s anti-SLAPP laws provide.

Pack is an atheist and began teaching German at Northridge High School in 2013. He became the subject of complaints soon after his employment. Both students and other faculty members complained about Pack’s tardiness and classroom behavior.

In 2014, the school initiated administrative proceedings to cancel Pack’s contract. And, after a hearing before the school board, the contract was canceled. Following its decision, the school board issued a press release saying that Pack’s performance “did not meet expectations” and that his “overall performance regressed throughout the school year and showed no potential for improvement.”

Pack filed a discrimination action in federal court, claiming that he was fired because of his atheism. A reporter for the Newspaper learned of this complaint and began digging into Pack’s story. Eventually, the paper reported that Pack was fired for “insubordination, immorality[,] and incompetence.”

Pack took issue with the characterization that he was fired for “incompetence” and asked the Newspaper to retract its use of this word. The Newspaper refused, and Pack sued for defamation. The Newspaper moved to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute, and the trial court granted that motion.

On appeal, Pack argued that the anti-SLAPP statute did not protect the Newspaper because its reporting about Pack did not involve a “public issue” for three reasons: (1) the passage of time since his termination; (2) the reporting relied on the school board’s confidential findings in support of Pack’s termination; and (3) the information would not be useful to the public. The Court rejected each of these arguments.

Looking to the “content, form, and context of the article,” the Court concluded that it “addressed a matter of concern to the local community,” i.e. “to inform the community of a federal lawsuit filed against a local public school corporation, which lawsuit alleged that the school corporation had engaged in religious discrimination.” The timing of the article and the source of the information were irrelevant in this context.

The Court then examined whether the article was published in good faith and with a reasonable basis in law and fact (a test for dismissal under the anti-SLAPP statute). And when it looked at that evidence, the Court found that the Newspaper had no reason to entertain serious doubts regarding the truth of its article.

Parrott’s use of the word “incompetence” fairly characterized and summarized the School Board’s findings and decision to terminate Pack’s employment. And there was nothing about Parrott’s use of that word in the context of Pack’s termination “so inherently improbable that only a reckless person would” have used that word. The School Board’s detailed findings underlying its termination decision support Parrott’s use of that word in writing the article.

Notably, the fact that the Newspaper did not retract its use of the word “incompetence” had no bearing on this inquiry.

Third, and last, Pack asserts that the Newspaper’s refusal to retract the use of the word “incompetence” when confronted with the alleged mistake and its potentially adverse impact on Pack’s employment opportunities infers the Newspaper did not act in good faith. But Pack’s after-the-fact analysis is not relevant. The act at issue is the Newspaper’s initial publication of the article and whether that initial publication was in good faith. After-the-fact information that could not have played any part in the Newspaper’s initial publication decision does not matter to that analysis.

Thus, the trial court properly granted the motion to dismiss.

Lessons:

  1. The question of whether an issue is a public issue does not hinge on whether the source of the information is confidential.
  2. Speakers may summarize others in their own words and still enjoy the benefits of Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute.
  3. A speaker’s failure to retract a statement has no bearing on whether that statement was made in good faith.