IF, AFTER abobbled ball at home plate, a sportswriter reports that "the catcher is one of the most inept, indecisive and homely men in the game," he has published an opinion and cannot successfully be sued for libel by the offended player. If he writes falsely and maliciously that "Bixby didn't pitch last night because he was arrested for drunken driving on the way to the park," then Bixby has a case. But suppose the reporter writes "I was at the game, and I saw that slide. The runner was safe by a mile, and the incompetent umpire was dead wrong, just as he's been wrong on nine out of 10 calls he made this season." Is this just hyperbole, speculation and exaggeration that every reader will have the good sense to take with a grain of salt? Is it opinion, pure and simple? Or is it the writer's view combined with a factual assertion that can be proven right or wrong by statisticians armed with videotape? If it is the last, the Supreme Court has now ruled, the umpire can sue the writer for libel.
The case at issue came from Ohio and involved a high school wrestling coach and a sportswriter who accused him of lying in court about incidents that led to a fistfight at an interscholastic match. The case has been in litigation for 15 years. Various judges have found at different times that a sports column is by nature hyperbole and therefore not actionable, or that the accusation of a lie under oath, taken in the context of the whole article, was opinion and thus protected by the First Amendment. The Washington Post supported the latter view and, with other news organizations, filed a brief on behalf of the columnist. The Supreme Court was unwilling to extend a blanket libel exemption for opinion, and now the Ohio case will go back for trial so a jury can decide whether the coach lied. But in deciding the case, the justices muddied the waters by trying to craft a simple rule for a complex situation. Now every statement that combines opinion with a statement that can arguably be labeled a factual assertion is up for grabs.
Why should the public care? There is probably little sympathy for members of the press whose work has been made more difficult and perhaps more actionable by this ruling. But citizens should understand that they are the beneficiaries of a free press, that an informed electorate should have available a wide range of opinion and speculation, as well as facts, and that this ruling will make the task of providing that kind of material more difficult.
If Mayor Smith, let's say, is acquitted of drug charges and this paper quotes a juror as saying, "He's guilty, I just went along with the verdict because the others pressured me," can the mayor sue? We believe a statement like that is opinion as well as news our readers would want to know. We also believe that this view of the legalities would eventually be sustained by the courts. But after Thursday's ruling we know as well that publishing the juror's comment might subject us to expensive litigation. When this kind of reporting becomes risky, that's bad not only for newspapers but for their readers, too.