Edwards v National Audubon Society: 1 May 1977

(The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit) The defendant environmental Society opposed the use of DDT saying it endangered birds. Its proponents argued that without DDT, millions would die of insect-carried diseases and starvation caused by the destruction of crops by insect pests. The Society published an annual Christmas bird count which showed a steady increase in bird sightings despite the growing employment of pesticides in the past 30 years. These statistics were seized upon by the scientists as proof of the fallacy of the Society’s claims. In riposte the Society prefaced the next year’s bird count with an article explaining that the count was the result not of more birds, but of more ‘birders’ (bird watchers). The article added: ‘Any time you hear a ‘scientist’ say the opposite, you are in the presence of someone who is being paid to lie . . ‘ A journalist on the New York Times realised that the Society’s charges were a newsworthy development in the already acrimonious debate and he accordingly telephoned the author of the article to obtain the names of those the Society considered to be ‘paid liars’. The plaintiffs were named. The reporter sought their comment. The New York Times published an account of the article, of the names given at interview and of the response of the accused men.
Held: ‘At stake in this case is a fundamental principle. Succinctly stated, when a responsible prominent organisation like the National Audubon Society makes serious charges against a public figure, the First Amendment protects the accurate and disinterested reporting of those charges, regardless of the reporter’s private views regarding their validity. . . What is newsworthy about such accusations is that they were made. We do not believe that the press may be required under the First Amendment to suppress newsworthy comments merely because it has serious doubts regarding their truth. Nor must the press take the cudgels against dubious charges in order to publish them without fear of liability for defamation.
The public interest in being fully informed about controversies that often rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report such charges without assuming responsibility for them.
The contours of the press’s right of neutral reportage are, of course, defined by the principle that gives life to it. Literal accuracy is not a prerequisite: if we are to enjoy the blessings of a robust and unintimidated press, we must provide immunity from defamation suits where the journalist believes, reasonably and in good faith, that his report accurately conveys the charges made.
It is equally clear, however, that a publisher who in fact espouses or concurs in the charges made by others, or who deliberately distorts these statements to launch a personal attack of his own on a public figure, cannot rely on a privilege of neutral reportage. In such instances he assumes responsibility for the underlying accusation.
It is clear here, that [the journalist] reported Audubon’s charges fairly and accurately. He did not in any away espouse the Society’s accusations: indeed, [he] published the maligned scientists’ outraged reactions in the same article that contained the Society’s attack. The Times article, in short, was the exemplar of fair and dispassionate reporting of an unfortunate but newsworthy contretemps. Accordingly, we hold that it was privileged under the First Amendment.’
[1997] 556 F 2d 113
United States
Cited by:
CitedRoberts and Another v Gable and others CA 12-Jul-2007
The claimants appealed a finding of qualified privilege in their claim of defamation by the defendant author and magazine which was said to have accused them of theft and threats of violence against other members of the BNP.
Held: The appeal . .

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Updated: 16 May 2021; Ref: scu.254596