A superior court judge has dismissed a political operative’s lawsuit claiming he was libeled by news stories in the Vineyard Gazette and The Boston Globe over his behavior, including his arrest, on the Island during the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign.
Michael S. Duga Jr., who was chief of staff for former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat from Georgia, sought unspecified damages against the newspapers and two reporters based on reports of his behavior at an August 2007 fundraising event for John Edwards and his arrest by Chilmark police on a variety of charges the following day.
The Hon. Paul E. Troy, an associate justice of the superior court, granted the newspapers’ motion to dismiss the 2010 lawsuit on Nov. 23, rejecting both major legal arguments advanced by Mr. Duga.
“It is a vindication of the fairness of the reporting that was done by the Gazette, and of the principles we rely on to allow the press to report on important matters without fear of liability,” said R. David Hosp, a Goodwin Procter attorney who represented the Gazette.
Mr. Hosp said the dismissal was a strong endorsement of news organizations’ “fair report privilege” – which in this case meant accurately reporting what is contained in official police reports.
The judge also determined that Mr. Duga was a “limited-purpose public figure,” which affords news organizations greater protections than when reporting on private figures.
Mr. Duga’s lawyer, George C. Deptula of the Boston firm Furman Gregory Deptula, did not return a phone call seeking comment about the case.
On August 24, 2007, Mr. Duga attended a private fundraiser for John Edwards at the summer home of Alex MacDonald in Chimark. He said he went to determine whether former Senator Cleland should endorse Mr. Edwards in his bid for the presidency. The news stories described his unorthodox behavior at the fundraiser, and his activity the next day, including his arrest by Chilmark police when he was found at the Menemsha Coast Guard station without permission. In March 2008, Mr. Duga pleaded guilty in Edgartown district court to trespassing and breaking and entering, and was given two years probation. Larceny and marijuana possession charges were dismissed.
In the lawsuit filed in August 2010, Mr. Duga’s attorney claimed the articles in the Gazette and Globe contained false and inaccurate statements that defamed him. But the judge determined that Mr. Duga should be treated as a limited-purpose public figure because he had “voluntarily interjected himself into a public controversy” because of his self-described role in determining whether Mr. Cleland should endorse Mr. Edwards and how critical that decision may be to the presidential bid.
Using that standard, libel plaintiffs are required to show the newspapers acted with “actual malice,” or that they knew statements were false or acted with reckless disregard as to their truth. Mr. Duga, the judge said, “has not set forth any factual basis” to meet that standard.
The fair report privilege provides legal immunity when news organizations “fairly and accurately report the government’s allegations.” In this case, the judge said, the newspapers’ articles fall under the privilege because they fairly and accurately reported the contents of police reports.
The decision is important, said Mr. Hosp, because the privilege was not just extended to the specifics of charges in the report, but the entire contents of the report.
“The decision makes clear that the entire police report is in a sense fair game, as long as it is fairly reported,” said Mr. Hosp, who was assisted in the case by associate Erin M. Michael.