“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32
Despite the separation of Church and State, Pittsburgh, PA Defamation law follows the suggestion of the oft quoted biblical passage from the Book of John. If you have been accused in Pennsylvania court of defaming someone, a demonstration that the alleged defamatory statements were substantially true is an absolute defense.
In Pittsburgh, as is the law across Pennsylvania, juries, in defamation cases are instructed as follows:
“If you find that the communication, even if it was defamatory of the plaintiff, was substan¬tially true, you will return a verdict in favor of the defendant and against the plaintiff.” Pa. Civ. Jury Inst. 13.8.
Conversely, Pittsburgh juries are also instructed:
“If you find that the communication was not substantially true and that it might reasonably have been understood by those other than the plaintiff, to whom it was communicated, as def¬amatory of the plaintiff, you may return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendant.” Pa. Civ. Jury Inst. 13.8.
But who is responsible for proving the truth/falsity of the allegedly defamatory statement?
Presently, Pa defamation law says “The burden of proving the falsity of the words published has now become an element of the Plaintiff’s case in all cases except where the Plaintiff is determined to be a private figure and the matter is not one of public concern.” foot note to Pa. Civ. Jury Inst. 13.8. This distinction, unique to Pennsylvania, comes from Pa interpretation of a US Supreme Court holding in the case of Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767 (1986) (this was actually a PA decision that was appealed to the Supreme Court). Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, set forth the holding as follows:
“We believe that the common law’s rule on falsity- that the defendant must bear the burden of proving truth- must similarly fall here to a constitutional requirement that the plaintiff bear the burden of showing falsity, as well as fault, before recovering damages.”
Pa courts found that the inclusion of the term “Constitutional requirement” in its holding suggested the holding should only apply in cases where First Amendment considerations are at issue. Because this is an interpretation of a US Supreme Court holding, it arguably applies to all states.
I will discuss the important distinctions between public and private figures and the resultant consequences in an upcoming post.
Despite the complexity of this area of law, there are a couple key takeaways for anyone in Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania embroiled in a case of defamation.
1. It is almost always the Plaintiff’s burden to prove the falsity of the allegedly defamatory statements.
2. Only in cases involving private figures in which the matter is not of public concern may it be the Defendant’s burden to prove the truth of the statement in question.
3. Proof that the alleged defamatory statement is substantially true is always a defense.
Check out my other posts on defamation here, here, and here. Share this post :