It all started with rumors about “fiscal improprieties and moral misconduct” at a Northern California Christian School.
John Trumbo, a 34-year-old reporter and editor at the Grass Valley Union and a born-again Christian, hears about the rumors and starts to investigate. One of his contacts informs the school it is the object of a newspaper investigation.
Shortly after, a slander suit is filed against the paper alleging that Trumbo said the schools minister was a drug addict, that his “personal life was a shambles,” and that his daughter was “walking the streets for immoral purposes.”
The story was never published and John Trumbo made legal history in California as the first reporter to be sued for defamation without having written a word.
In early 1982, it was announced that the Reverend William Mansdoerfer, a 48-year-old evangelist and radio preacher, had settled the $5.4 million precedent-setting suit for a reported $275,000. Trumbo already had resigned from the paper saying that “My idea of First Amendment rights obviously doesn’t square with the Union’s.”
Newspaper representatives and reporters are concerned that the success of this case could prove a potent weapon to muzzle investigative reporting. Terry Francke, legal counsel for the California Newspapers Publishers Association, said that using pre-publication suits as a tactic could impede “publication of stories that people or organizations don’t want published about themselves. It has the effect of a retraction letter in advance.”
Steve Shiffrin, professor of constitutional law at UCLA, said he expects the courts to be quite leery of imposing liabilities on a working reporter trying to investigate a story,” but noted that “if these action are encouraged by the courts, it could open the floodgates for others.”
Which indeed, it seems to have done. The Contra Costa (California) Times subsequently was sued by Lafayette Morehouse, a communal organization, which (prior to publication) claimed it was slandered. Francke believes that Morehouse got the cue from the Mansdoerfer suit and calls it a “clear attempt at intimidation of reporters.” Nonetheless, the Times printed its story.
While the threat of multi-million-dollar libel judgments already has had a chilling effect on the media, the possibility of prepublication legal suits may prove to be even more ominous for a free press.
California Magazine, June 1982, “Kill That Story,” by Paul Cohen.