A major libel case under review by the Supreme Court was settled out of court yesterday, reflecting what appears to be a general news media strategy to avoid giving the justices a chance to cut back on press protections.
It was the second libel case at the court to be settled in the past two weeks. A year that had been expected to produce important developments in that field now probably will produce none.
The case settled yesterday was Wilson vs. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co. The issue was who should have the heavy burden of proving that a news report is true or false, the person suing or the news organization being sued.
A ruling in favor of the person suing could have made many libel suits much harder to defend for news organizations. The case related only to suits brought by private individuals, as opposed to public figures.
Shelby Wilson, a Mississippi cattle breeder, sued TV station WMC in Memphis after a news story suggested that he was starving his cows. WMC lost the case in U.S. District Court, but won a ruling in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the lower court had erroneously required the station to prove the truth of its report. Wilson appealed to the Supreme Court.
Bruce W. Sanford, attorney for Scripps-Howard, which owns WMC, said yesterday that the dispute had been settled and would be withdrawn from the Supreme Court.
The second case recently settled was Victoria Price Street vs. NBC. Street, the white woman who accused nine black men of raping her in 1931, sued over a 1976 NBC show about the case, which became known as the "Scottsboro Boys" case. She said the program falsely portrayed her as, among other things, a perjurer. She lost in the lower courts, but the Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to review the case.
The Street case also presented a crucial issue: whether Street or anybody else could remain a "public figure" for libel purposes years after the controversy that attracted press interest was over. In libel law, public figures have a much harder time winning because they must show that the media recklessly disregarded the truth.
Lawyers in both cases declined to discuss the terms or the motives for the settlements.
But libel defense lawyers, along with civil liberties and civil rights attorneys, generally say they believe now that the court is becoming increasingly unpredictable about their causes and the further away they can keep the justices the better. Many feel it is better to absorb the costs of a settlement than risk a ruling that could damage libel defendants throughout the country.
"If the court has a conscious agenda in the libel area, it is to cut back on protections" for the media, said Henry R. Kaufman, general counsel for the New York-based Libel Defense Resource Center.
"Any case seems to give this court an opportunity to say bad things," Kaufman said. The strategy is to deny it that opportunity, he said.
In libel law, a single footnote can wind up costing the news industry millions of dollars. That happened after a 1979 court ruling in Hutchinson vs. Proxmire. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote a footnote that has been interpreted by many lower court judges to mean that more libel suits should go to trial rather than be dismissed by judges.
The uncertainty has increased with the retirement of Justice Potter Stewart and his replacement by Sandra D. O'Connor, whose views on libel are unknown.