Virginia Supreme Court rules in favor of The Virginian-Pilot

The Supreme Court of Virginia last week upheld a lower court's ruling that struck down a $3 million libel verdict against The Virginian-Pilot and is being hailed as a major win for newspapers and journalism.

"The decision is a positive step forward for newspapers and should be extremely helpful in future defamation cases that are based on the question of whether the implication could reasonably be found in a news article or story," said Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, which spearheaded a 'friend of the court' effort in support of The Pilot.  

Phillip D. Webb sued The Pilot for a news article that appeared in 2009 reporting that his son, Kevin Webb, was not disciplined by the school system after an assault on a Chesapeake family.

Webb is an assistant principal in the same public school system where his son attended high school. The elder Webb claimed that the article defamed him by suggesting his son received little to no discipline because of his position in the school system.

He won a $3 million jury verdict, but the presiding judge, Randall D. Smith, struck down the verdict four months later when he said Webb did not produce sufficient evidence to prove actual malice.

Webb's attorney appealed the decision to Virginia's high court, which decided on Friday that Smith was correct to strike the verdict.

"The article does not create a reasonable implication that Phillip solicited or procured the insinuated special treatment," Justice William C. Mims wrote in the 10-page opinion. "It does not state or suggest that Phillip undertook any affirmative action to arrange or endorse the school system's disciplinary response to the incidents."

Denis Finley, editor of The Pilot, said the Supreme Court's decision affirms the newspaper's approach to stories -- "That is to put the facts in a story and let the facts speak for themselves."

"It is a decision that affects every journalist in Virginia. It helped clarify the boundaries for defamation by implication," Finley said. "Obviously, I think it was a very good decision because without this decision it would have made our jobs much tougher."

Here are the Virginia newspapers and media organizations that joined the Virginia Press Association in the amicus brief on behalf of The Pilot:
 
Virginia Press Association
The Recorder, Monterey
The Free Press, Woodstock
LIN Television Corp. d/b/a/ WAVY-TV
BH Media Group/Virginia Dailies
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • Bristol Herald Courier
  • The Daily Progress, Charlottesville
  • Culpeper Star-Exponent
  • Danville Register & Bee
  • The News & Advance, Lynchburg
  • Roanoke Times
  • The News Virginian, Waynesboro
The Washington Post
Virginia Association of Broadcasters
Media General 
Associated Press

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