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David Shapiro

By David Shapiro

Saturday, January 30, 1999

Mixed emotions
about ruling
on libel suit

MANY years ago, a relative was shot and killed in the most senseless of circumstances.

He was visiting a friend when two other men in the building's parking lot got into an argument over a woman. One of the men fired a wild shot at the other that pierced the building's wall and hit my relative in the head, dropping him dead as he minded his own business in his friend's living room.

The local newspaper misread the police report and wrongly reported that my relative was involved in the parking lot fight. His widow, already devastated by his death, now had to deal as well with false talk about her husband fighting over another woman.

We were willing to accept it as an honest -- if extremely careless -- mistake until the newspaper made it far worse by dragging its feet about correcting the error when it was pointed out.

The anger still sears when I think about it nearly a quarter-century later. It taught me the best lesson I ever learned about the hurt we journalists can cause with inaccurate reporting and the importance of correcting our mistakes promptly when they inevitably occur.

Which is why I had mixed emotions last week when the Hawaii Supreme Court issued an important ruling in the Star-Bulletin's favor to end a long and bitter libel lawsuit.

I was grateful that the court had stood up for the First Amendment and relieved that the case was over. But I still felt bad that we had made the unintentional error that led to the lawsuit. Though we were not of the evil intent the plaintiff believed and he could not show that we caused him any real damage, we did make a mistake and we regret it.

The Supreme Court upheld a ruling by Circuit Judge Kevin Chang to dismiss the 1995 lawsuit against the Star-Bulletin stemming from a state insurance investigation. In one reference, we got the names of two brothers confused and identified the wrong one as the target of the investigation.

We readily admitted the mistake and quickly published an unequivocal correction. But the misidentified brother sued anyway, claiming we had damaged his business and reputation. He was angry that we had gotten the information from documents that were supposed to be confidential but were mistakenly left in the Circuit Court's public access bin.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Steven Levinson, found that our error was inadvertent, we had not acted maliciously and that the plaintiff had failed to show that our story damaged him.

Our attorney Margaret Leong sees important First Amendment issues in the ruling.

"It reaffirms and extends the principle recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Pentagon Papers case (that) even though the government intends to keep something secret, if the press comes by it lawfully it is free to publish it," Leong said. "The court's recognition that libel claims must be limited to those who can show actual injury provides very important breathing room for the press."

THE court's thoughtful ruling provides perhaps the clearest and most balanced guidepost in the nation as to what constitutes libel.

Hawaii's court protected the interests of the First Amendment by discouraging libel lawsuits over inadvertent errors that cause no demonstrable damage. These lawsuits serve only to stifle the free debate of public issues.

But the court also made clear that news media are accountable for libel if we issue recklessly inaccurate and malicious reports that wrongly damage careers and reputations.

That's only fair.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at editor@starbulletin.com.

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