Seattle Attorney Gives Tips to Avoid Libel Suits

Judith Endejan, a lawyer for the firm Graham & Dunn based in Seattle, was sharply definitive when she described what it’s like to defend a libel suit on behalf of her clients. “Juries tend to hate the media,” she said.

In her talk, “Lessons from the Libel Swamp: Practical Tips for the Unwary,” given at the 2004 convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Endejan reviewed case history and the components of defamation and offered tips to AAN editors and writers about how to stay out of the at-times hostile courtroom where she sometimes finds herself.

When defending her clients, Endejan says, the first question she asks herself regards the status of the individuals bringing the suit. Under libel law, it’s much more difficult for public figures than private individuals to bear the burden of proof that they have been wronged in a published work. According to Endejan, a convicted felon would also be hard-pressed to prove his or her reputation has been smeared by a story.

But, Endejan says, articles aren’t the only way for a publication to plant itself on the path to litigation. Art and photos can conjure unflattering implications. “Photos are areas fraught with contention,” she said. In many cases, it’s the cutlines accompanying the art that can mislead readers by making unwarranted statements.

The best way to avoid legal conflict she says, is to consult a lawyer when concerns arise and to consider requests for retractions when they are made. When contemplating requests however, be careful. “You can’t take a knee-jerk reaction to retraction either way,” she warned.

Joy Howard is a 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism who has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig and Cleveland Free Times. She is coordinator of professional development programs for Wheelock College and lives in Brookline, Mass.