Appeals court ruling: No libel if statement is ‘substantially true’

By Howard Fischer | Capitol Media Services via Arizona Daily Sun

Proof that a statement is “substantially true” is enough to escape being found guilty of libel or slander, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a detailed decision on First Amendment rights, the judges said that someone being sued for defamation “need not prove the literal truth of every detail” of the statement at the heart of the litigation. Instead, they need to show only “that the statements are substantially true” to have the case dismissed.

“Slight inaccuracies will not prevent a statement from being true in substance, as long as the ‘gist’ or ‘sting’ of the publication is justified,” wrote Judge Paul McMurdie for the three-judge appellate panel, relying on earlier court precedent.

What that means, McMurdie said, is that when the underlying facts are not in dispute, it is up to a court to determine if publishing the literal truth “would have made a material difference to a reader” as compared with the substantial truth. And if there is no indication that is the case, the court concluded, the case has to be thrown out.

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