By guest blogger ASHLEY MESSENGER, Editorial Counsel to U.S. News & World Report, L.P., Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently ruled in Noonan v. Staples, Inc. that truth is not necessarily a defense to a libel claim.  This is a troubling holding, as libel is generally defined as a false, defamatory statement.  

But Massachusetts has a law that allows a true statement to be the basis of a libel claim if the statement is made with “actual malice,” which the First Circuit interpreted as “ill will.”  The ruling appears to be predicated on the fact that the plaintiff, Alan Noonan, is a “private person” and the statement was not a “matter of public concern.”

It is undisputed that Alan Noonan was fired from Staples for violating the company’s expense policies.  A vice president sent an e-mail to Staples employees stating that Noonan was fired for failure to comply with expense policies and reminding employees of the importance of compliance.  The court allowed his claim to go forward to let a jury decide whether the statements were made with “ill will.”

But if a private person can sue for libel when a true statement is made with ill will, the courts will be flooded with victims of petty gossip and spiteful ex’s.  A cheating spouse, for example, would now have a libel claim if the aggrieved spouse vents to friends about the betrayal with “ill will.”

In addition, there is the policy matter of permitting a person to recover damages when their reputation is damaged with good cause.  If a spouse cheats and that true fact is disclosed, his or her reputation may be damaged, but justifiably damaged.  Do we truly want to permit people to be compensated for their own bad behavior?

Finally, there is a problem with the increasingly false distinction between matters of “public concern” and “private” things.  The value of hearing truthful information is the same reason reporters use anecdotes in newspaper stories.  It makes a situation more real when you can associate a name and specific event to an issue rather than relying on vague assertions of what might or might not have happened.  

In fact, if a reporter had used Noonan’s story as anecdotal evidence of why it is important to comply with company policies, it should have been deemed a matter of public concern.  The correct result, whether it’s a company or a reporter, is that all speakers should be protected by the First Amendment.

This post is adapted from a Media Institute  Perspectives issue paper by Ashley Messenger on this topic.  View the full paper here.

Ashley Messenger is Editorial Counsel to U.S. News & World Report, L.P., and an adjunct faculty member at American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not of these institutions.