Noonan v. Staples: “The most dangerous libel decision in decades”

A long-established principle of libel law — truth is an absolute defense — has been called into question by a decision handed down last week by a federal appeals court in Boston. The court ruled in the case of Noonan v. Staples that truth published with “actual malice” gleaned from the context of the statement can give rise to a libel lawsuit. The case threatens to muzzle both news and entertainment media, and could be particularly dangerous to independent bloggers and small startup news organizations — neither of which is likely to have the legal resources a traditional established news organization has to battle libel suits.

The case rose not from anything published in news media, but from a mass e-mail sent by Staples to about 1500 employees informing them, within the context of a reminder about policy compliance, that Alan S. Noonan, a Staples manager, had been fired for violating the office-supplies firm’s travel and expense policy. The memo read:

It is with sincere regret that I must inform you of the termination of Alan Noonan’s employment with Staples. A thorough investigation determined that Alan was not in compliance with our [travel and expenses] policies. As always, our policies are consistently applied to everyone and compliance is mandatory on everyone’s part. It is incumbent on all managers to understand Staples[‘s] policies and to consistently communicate, educate and monitor compliance every single day. Compliance with company policies is not subject to personal discretion and is not optional. In addition to ensuring compliance, the approver’s responsibility to monitor and question is a critical factor in effective management of this and all policies.

During the investigation, Noonan had admitted “pre-populating” his reports with generously estimated expenses, claiming that he had intended to adjust the figures to actual later on; but the investigation determined that he failed to do so.

In reversing the district court decision, as well as its own earlier affirmation of summary judgment for Staples, the court ruled in Noonan’s favor, relying on a 1902 Massachusetts law that provided truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show “actual malice” on the part of the defendant in publishing the statement. The final outcome of the case could have chilling implications for journalism.

Continue reading this post at Nieman Journalism Lab.