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San Jose City Council Member Loses Libel Appeal

October 1, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A former San Jose City Council member who won, and then lost, a $1.01 million libel award against his local newspaper lost a Supreme Court appeal today.

The court, without comment, let stand rulings that Claude Fletcher failed to prove the San Jose Mercury News in California published statements about him with ″actual malice″ - knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity.

Fletcher sued the Mercury News over a series of 1984 articles reporting on his conduct while a city council member and as a board member of a local antipoverty agency.

Fletcher’s 1984 bid for re-election failed after the articles were published. The articles reported that five agency officials said Fletcher tried to steer a $1.6 million contract to an insulation business in which he became a partner.

The articles quoted the agency’s executive director as saying that Fletcher once offered him and his wife a trip to Hawaii, which the agency official interpreted as a bribe.

A jury in 1986 awarded Fletcher $250,000 in general damages, $25,000 in special damages and $735,000 in punitive damages.

But the trial judge threw out the award, ruling that Fletcher had failed to prove the articles were published with actual malice - a burden facing any public official who sues for libel.

Private citizens who sue for libel need only prove that an allegedly libelous statement was false and made negligently.

A state appeals court upheld the dismissal of the award, and the California Supreme Court refused to hear Fletcher’s appeal last February.

In its 1989 ruling, the appeals court said, ″The evidence suggests a sincere attempt to report what the Mercury News viewed as unethical behavior on the part of a San Jose public official.″

It added, ″Clearly the articles contained factual errors. But was there clear and convincing evidence that (the paper’s reporter) did not believe his story was true? We do not think so.″

In the appeal acted on today, Fletcher said the articles about him represented ″highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from ordinary standards of investigation and reporting.″

He said there was sufficient evidence of actual malice.

The case is Fletcher vs. San Jose Mercury News, 89-1788.

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