Court Rules on Letters to Editor -- free speech protection

31 Aug 2001

jimdbb@aol.com (JimDBB)

Court Rules on Letters to Editor

.c The Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - People who write letters to the editor are entitled to the same free speech protection as editorial columnists, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

In a 5-2 decision Wednesday, the court said letter writers who are not affiliated with the media cannot be sued for defamation if the court determines their comments were an expression of opinion rather than fact.

In 1986, the court set down a similar standard for editorial columnists after someone sued a newspaper and its columnist over an opinion piece.

``We do not suggest here that publication of defamatory statements in a letter to the editor will insulate the author from liability in every case,'' Justice Deborah Cook wrote.

``We merely note that it is commonly known that authors of letters to the editor are normally not engaged in the business of factual reporting or news dissemination, and that their letters qualify ... as a `well established genre' of opinionated speech.''

The ruling involved a letter printed in The Circleville Herald that described businessman Isaac Wampler as a ``ruthless speculator'' who had forced a local grocer out of business by charging her exorbitant rent.

Wampler sued the letter writer, Wallace Higgins. Two lower courts ruled that Higgins' letter was protected as free speech.

The high court upheld the lower courts' rulings, saying Higgins' statements passed the test that is used in determining whether published material is an expression of opinion protected under the law.


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