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Court Won’t Block Montana Libel Retrial

June 22, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to block a retrial of a libel lawsuit charging a Montana newspaper with falsely accusing a deputy sheriff of theft.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that reinstated the suit despite a jury verdict in favor of the newspaper, The Missoulian, and the reporter who wrote the disputed article.

The Missoulian, in a December 1982 article written by Donald Schwennesen, reported an allegation by former Flathead County Sheriff’s Detective Max Salisbury.

He accused Deputy Sheriff Warren E. Sible of stealing a meat smokehouse valued at around $20. Salisbury also charged that Sheriff Al Rierson, who was seeking re-election, tried to cover up the theft and reassigned Salisbury for trying to expose the theft.

Sible sued The Missoulian, Schwennesen and Salisbury for $30 million. He said the story was false and that the newspaper and reporter acted with actual malice - knowing the charges were false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

A jury ruled in favor of the defendants.

But the Montana Supreme Court revived the case last November, saying the trial judge instructed the jury improperly.

The judge had told the jury that the newspaper, to be guilty of actual malice, must have published the material despite ″serious doubts as to the truth of the publication.″

The state Supreme Court said that instruction shields ″a newspaper where it knows that the source of its information is highly suspect but fails to investigate.″

The state court said, ″Such a rule encourages irresponsible journalism. When a newspaper has facts that indicate material is highly suspect, it should, and it does, have a duty to investigate before publishing.″

Lawyers for The Missoulian, which is published by Lee Enterprises Inc., urged the justices to overturn the state court ruling and throw out the suit.

The newspaper’s lawyers defended the fairness of its reporting, noting that Sible’s denial of the theft charge was included in the story.

The Missoulian also said that the state court misinterpreted earlier Supreme Court rulings in ordering another trial.

The newspaper was supported in a legal brief submitted by the American Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Those organizations said, ″It is undisputed that mere failure to investigate does not in itself establish actual malice.″

The case is Lee Enterprises vs. Sible, 86-1638.