In a closely watched defamation case, the state’s highest court has ruled in favor of a one-time editor at a University of Massachusetts student newspaper.
The Supreme Judicial Court said Cady Vishniac can’t be held liable for publishing a synopsis of a police blotter item alongside photos police released to help them find an allegedly suspicious man who was reported to be taking photos of women — but who later denied the allegations, was never charged, and whose phone wasn’t found to have any such images.
The court affirmed that journalists are protected from defamation claims when they fairly and accurately report about official public actions and proceedings, a legal idea known as the fair report privilege.
“Once police undertake an official response to a complaint, both that response and the allegations that gave rise to it fall within the fair report privilege,” Justice Barbara A. Lenk wrote.
But the court declined to extend that privilege to all reports in public records such as police logs because they may include anonymous complaints making accusations of criminal activity.
“Such anonymous accusations, without a subsequent response by police, are neither official statements nor official actions cloaked by the fair report privilege,” the ruling said.
Frank D. LoMonte, a professor of media law at the University of Florida who has followed the case, said the ruling “is a fairly narrow reaffirmation of basic, accepted principles of privilege.”
LoMonte, also director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said the ruling gave no indication that the court sees student journalists any differently than professional journalists.
“There’s nothing to indicate that a student media outlet will get less benefit in the eyes of the law,” he said.
The case — which could have gone to trial if the SJC had ruled the other way — revolves around an incident on March 13, 2013, that court records describe in detail. University of Massachusetts Boston police received a report that an unknown man was engaging in suspicious activity near campus, with a witness telling police that he was taking photos of women on a bus. Police couldn’t find him.
A police blotter report about the incident was published by the school newspaper, Mass Media.
Later, UMass police received photographs from the bus company. At the request of police, Mass Media published the photos. They ran under the title “Have you Seen This Man?” and included a synopsis of the incident that described the man as allegedly snapping pictures of women “without their permission,” and a request for people to call campus security if they saw him.
Jon Butcher, then a security engineer at UMass Boston’s information technology department, was subsequently identified as the person in the photos. Attempts to reach him Wednesday by phone and e-mail were not successful.
UMass police took his phone and searched image files on it. None of the ones dated March 13, 2013, were of women; several showed buses and a bus driver.
In court documents, Butcher said he took photos to document what he believed to be serious safety concerns about the bus company and its drivers. The documents note that a year after the incident, the bus company was shut down due to safety issues. Butcher also said he was accosted by a driver who saw what he was doing.
After the publication of the stories, Butcher said he felt negative repercussions at work and feared for his safety, according to court documents. Bus drivers kept copies of the newspaper articles about him open on their dashboards, he was given a higher volume of low-level work, and he was left out of key meetings, he said. Months later, he left his UMass job.
In 2014, Butcher filed suit in superior court against UMass, university officials, and Vishniac, who had been a student and the newspaper’s news editor when the items and photos were published. His claims included defamation and emotional distress. The court ruled in favor of the defendants.
But the state appeals court said the lower court erred and the newspaper’s publication of the item accompanied by the photos wasn’t protected by the fair report privilege.
The office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey subsequently stepped in to defend the former student editor, deeming the case to be in the public’s interest.
And Vishniac, who hasn’t practiced any sort of journalism since her time at UMass, appealed to the state’s highest court, which ruled in her favor on the last day of 2019.
“I am so completely relieved,” Vishniac, now 34, said Wednesday — relieved for herself, she said, and also for any newspaper editor who puts a simple police blotter item in a newspaper.
Jeffrey J. Pyle, an attorney with Prince Lobel Tye, who has represented The New York Times and The Boston Globe, said he sees the ruling “as a win for crime journalism in Massachusetts.”
“This was a case where a student newspaper largely reprinted what was in a campus police blotter and the court recognized that’s protected,” he said.
Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.