A major study of libel laws has recommended sweeping changes designed to resolve disputes quickly through "no fault" trials deciding the truth of disputed statements.
No damages would be awarded in such trials.The changes were proposed Monday by the Washington-based Annenberg Washington Program of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., after a study begun last winter by 11 lawyers, judges, journalists and others.
"Libel suits tend to drag on interminably, are enormously costly for both sides and very seldom clearly resolve what ought to be the heart of the matter: the truth or falsity of what was published," said the report of the Libel Reform Project.
A major change from current law in the proposal would be elimination of the requirement that public figures suing for libel prove that defamatory statements about them were published with "actual malice," that is, with knowledge that they were false or with "reckless disregard" of whether they were false or not.
Among changes from current law incorporated in a model statute recommended to the states and federal government:
-No suit for defamation could be filed unless the plaintiff had been refused a prompt retraction or chance to reply. Retractions or replies for candidates for office would have to be made before a coming election.
-All such suits would have to charge that the defendant made a false factual statement that was defamatory - tended to injure the plaintiff's reputation. Such a lawsuit could not be smuggled into court under another name, such as invasion of privacy.
-No one could sue over statements of opinion, such as an editorial cartoon. In determining what is fact, courts could consider the extent to which a statement could be proved objectively and the extent to which exaggeration for rhetorical effect was intended.
-Most trials would be for "declaratory judgment," with the loser paying the legal costs of the winner. Such trials would have to begin within 120 days. The only issue would be the truth, according to the judgment of the jury or, if the parties agree, the judge.
-A conventional trial for money damages could not be held unless both sides agreed, and even then damages would be limited to the plaintiff's actual loss - there could be no punitive damages.