FREEHOLD, N.J. — News reporters are considered public figures when they write about controversial public issues, a state judge has ruled.
The decision, considered the first of its kind in New Jersey, means reporters who claim they were libeled must prove actual malice to prevail. People who are not public figures need only meet a lesser standard, showing that the disputed information is false, to win such a lawsuit.
In making the ruling April 24, Superior Court Judge William P. Gilroy dismissed a defamation claim filed by Carol Gorga Williams, a reporter for the Asbury Park Press of Neptune. The decision was reported in this week’s New Jersey Law Journal.
Williams claimed that two lawyers she was writing about spread a falsehood that she was having an affair with a source. The lawyers are Robert Tarver, former chief of the Ocean County Office of the Public Defender, and Linda Kenney.
Williams was covering a dispute involving Tarver, his staff lawyers and public defender management in Trenton.
The state office investigated whether Tarver faked timesheets when he appeared on television as a commentator. Tarver, who is black, resigned. He hired Kenney and filed a discrimination claim.
Gilroy’s ruling was in line with similar cases in other states, lawyers said.
Williams’ lawyer, Richard Ragsdale, said the ruling was not unexpected and that they would pursue the remaining counts in her lawsuit.