Associated Newspapers objected to parts of the statement that the author plans to read in open court as part of the settlement of her libel claim
In California, if a plaintiff wants to sue a newspaper (or radio station) for defamation, the plaintiff must first demand a retraction. If no such demand is made, then the plaintiff is limited to special damages (the actual damages that flow from the defamation. Failing to demand a retraction can kill the action, because it is often the case that no actual damages can be shown. If the demand is made, the newspaper can avoid any award for general damages by printing a retraction.
Here is the statute in its entirety, Civil Code section 48a:
Required Retraction Demand
1. In any action for damages for the publication of a libel in a newspaper, or of a slander by radio broadcast, plaintiff shall recover no more than special damages unless a correction be demanded and be not published or broadcast, as hereinafter provided. Plaintiff shall serve upon the publisher, at the place of publication or broadcaster at the place of broadcast, a written notice specifying the statements claimed to be libelous and demanding that the same be corrected. Said notice and demand must be served within 20 days after knowledge of the publication or broadcast of the statements claimed to be libelous.
2. If a correction be demanded within said period and be not published or broadcast in substantially as conspicuous a manner in said newspaper or on said broadcasting station as were the statements claimed to be libelous, in a regular issue thereof published or broadcast within three weeks after such service, plaintiff, if he pleads and proves such notice, demand and failure to correct, and if his cause of action be maintained, may recover general, special and exemplary damages; provided that no exemplary damages may be recovered unless the plaintiff shall prove that defendant made the publication or broadcast with actual malice and then only in the discretion of the court or jury, and actual malice shall not be inferred or presumed from the publication or broadcast.
3. A correction published or broadcast in substantially as conspicuous a manner in said newspaper or on said broadcasting station as the statements claimed in the complaint to be libelous, prior to receipt of a demand therefor, shall be of the same force and effect as though such correction had been published or broadcast within three weeks after a demand therefor.
4. As used herein, the terms “general damages,” “special damages,” “exemplary damages” and “actual malice,” are defined as follows:
(a) “General damages” are damages for loss of reputation, shame, mortification and hurt feelings;
(b) “Special damages” are all damages which plaintiff alleges and proves that he has suffered in respect to his property, business, trade, profession or occupation, including such amounts of money as the plaintiff alleges and proves he has expended as a result of the alleged libel, and no other;
(c) “Exemplary damages” are damages which may in the discretion of the court or jury be recovered in addition to general and special damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing a defendant who has made the publication or broadcast with actual malice;
(d) “Actual malice” is that state of mind arising from hatred or ill will toward the plaintiff; provided, however, that such a state of mind occasioned by a good faith belief on the part of the defendant in the truth of the libelous publication or broadcast at the time it is published or broadcast shall not constitute actual malice.
You can still sue a newspaper for defamation even if you don’t demand a retraction within 20 days, but failing to do so limits any damage recover to “special damages”. In many cases, special damages are not worth pursuing, since they consist primarily of loss of income. Under proper circumstances, special damages can be significant (we recently won $1.5 million dollars of special damages for a client), but in most cases the plaintiff will have a hard time proving that specific business was lost because of the newspaper article.
Across the pond, they have a similar process, but with a couple of twists. The newspaper must print an apology, and if it does so, the plaintiff cannot recover any damages unless he, she or it can show that the article was printed with malice.
The dust up between Rowling and the Daily Mail arose from an online article in which the paper claimed an article written by Rowling about her time as a single mother in Scotland was a misleading “sob story”. The Daily Mail subsequently published an apology to Rowing, in which it accepted that Rowling made no false claims in the article and said that it had paid her “substantial damages”, which she was donating to charity.
But then Rowling announced she was going to read a statement in open court, stating that the Daily Mail had falsely accused her of being dishonest. The Daily Mail felt that was inappropriate, and unsuccessfully sought to block Rowling’s statement.
I can appreciate the newspaper’s frustration. The apology procedure is designed to undo the defamation, and to that end, the paper published an apology and paid a substantial settlement. If Rowling can now go to court and come up with her own characterization of what was said, which will then be reported by all the media, she is afforded the means to now damage the newspaper, even though she accepted the settlement.
For example, let’s say a newspaper publishes that you cheat customers. You demand a retraction, and the newspaper prints an apology stating that you never cheated customers, and pays you money. Now you call the media to court, and state on the record that the newspaper has apologized for saying you cheated on your taxes. The newspaper never said you cheated on your taxes, it might indeed believe that you do cheat on your taxes, and yet it is put in a bad light that goes beyond the original claim that you cheat customers, since the impression is now that the newspaper also apologized for a tax remark.
The newspaper’s position was that it never said Rowling was dishonest, and that Rowling should not be able to claim that it did, or that it apologized.