Massachusetts Court Ruling Protects Citizen Critics From Police Libel Lawsuits

June 20, 2000 12:00 am

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BOSTON — In a resounding victory for First Amendment advocates, the Supreme Judicial Court today issued a ruling that significantly broadens the legal protections for citizens who criticize police.

In so doing, the Court threw out a $200,000 libel judgment against a bricklayer who had been sued for complaining about the conduct of a Deerfield, Massachusetts, police officer.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in case, welcomed the court’s ruling, saying that such protections are particularly important when it comes to police.

“The decision demonstrates that in a free society not even the police are immune from criticism,” said John Roberts, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Individuals who feel that they have been the victims of improper police conduct may express their complaints without fear that they will face retribution from law enforcement officials.”

Today’s decision was the first time that the state court has squarely ruled that police officers are “public officials” subject to a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court finding that public officials who sue for libel cannot prevail unless they make a particularly difficult showing: that the person uttering the libel did so knowing it was false or with “reckless disregard” of its probable falsity.

With today’s ruling, Massachusetts joins the overwhelming majority of states that have ruled that police officers are “public officials” for purpose of defamation law.

Officer William Rotkiewicz sued Walter Sadowsky, a Deerfield resident, after Sadowsky complained that the state police officer had harassed him, saying that Rotkiewicz may have been involved in illegal activity. Following an internal investigation by the state police, Rotkiewicz resigned from the state police force.

When Rotkiewicz later applied for a position as a Deerfield police officer, Sadowsky urged selectmen there not to appoint him. Sadowsky told selectmen he believed Rotkiewicz had targeted him for harassment, and he illustrated his concerns by sporting a T-shirt bearing a large bulls-eye.

Rotkiewicz nevertheless got the job, then sued Sadowsky in 1991 for slander and libel. In 1994, the case went to a jury in Franklin County, which awarded Officer Rotkiewicz $156,000 in damages plus $53,636 in interest. Sadowsky appealed, resulting in the Court’s ruling today.

“Because of the broad powers vested in police officers,” the court wrote today, “and the great potential for abuse of those powers, as well as police officers’ high visibility within and impact on a community, that police officers, even patrol-level police officers such as the plaintiff, are ‘public officials’ for purposes of defamation.”

In its friend-of-the-court brief, the ACLU of Massachusetts said that “There is no public official in whose qualifications a citizen has more direct and tangible interest than a police officer.”

“Whether exercised at a traffic stop, or in a drug raid, or in response to a report of crime at one’s home, police power represents the most fundamental and personal exercise of state power over citizens. For that reason, the public has vital interest in promoting public speech regarding alleged police misconduct,” the ACLU said.

In its decision, the Court ruled that to recover damages in a defamation suit, a police officer must show that the statement at issue was made with knowledge that it was false or in “reckless disregard” of its probable falsity.

The case is Rotkiewicz v. Sadowsky. The authors of the brief for the ACLU of Massachusetts were William C. Newman, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Western Regional Office in Northampton, and Robert A. Bertsche and Carol V. Rose of Hill and Barlow in Boston.

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