Mass. SJC Affirms ‘Fair Report Privilege’ in Win for Newsrooms, Public’s Right to Know

NEFAC, Media Organizations Filed Brief in Case Warning of Chilling Effect if Privilege Not Upheld

DEC. 31 DECISION

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 | justin@nefac.org

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the state’s “fair report” privilege earlier this week confirming that news organizations can fairly and accurately report certain types of governmental action without being liable for claims arising out of those reports.

The New England First Amendment Coalition, GateHouse Media, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, the Associated Press and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief — drafted by Greenberg Traurig — last September.

In their brief, NEFAC and fellow amici warned the court that without the privilege:

“Massachusetts journalists, unlike their counterparts in many other states, will no longer be able to report information contained in police blotters, a reliable and frequent source for news coverage about something that is of the utmost public importance – crime. This will necessarily have a chilling effect on the press’s ability to report official government information, to the detriment of an informed public.”

In its December 31 decision, the SJC agreed. The court found that a student newspaper and its editors could not be liable for republishing certain information found in a police blotter.

A blotter is the chronological listing of daily police cases, including arrests with name, age, hometown, time, date and address of the arrest, the specific charge and other relevant information the public needs to know.

SEPT. 9 BRIEF

The case — Butcher v. University of Massachusetts — involved two news articles published by Mass Media, the student newspaper of the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

The articles included information about a crime suspect as provided in a police blotter prepared by the university’s police department. The individual named as a suspect subsequently sued the newspaper for libel, as well as other causes of action.

“This is a win not only for newsrooms but for citizens throughout the Commonwealth,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “This decision will allow journalists to keep us informed about what police are doing in our communities.”

NEFAC regularly files and joins amicus briefs in cases involving the First Amendment and the public’s right to know. The coalition recently argued for:

Public access to retailer revenue under the federal Freedom of Information Act
Broad U.S. Dept. of Interior FOIA rules
Free access to police body camera footage in Vermont
Massachusetts public records in aggregate form
Timely access to juror identities
The right to private emails of government officials when they pertain to public business
The freedom to record public police activity
The preservation of anti-SLAPP laws


NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, the Barr Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University.

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