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Perham Selectperson Accuses
FFJ Editor of ‘Slander’
By: David Deschesne
Fort Fairfield Journal, January 11, 2012
PERHAM, Maine—At the December 28, 2011 Perham selectman meeting, selectperson, Angela Beckwith accused Fort Fairfield Journal editor/publisher, David Deschesne of ‘slandering’ her in his newspaper.
Her comment was a woefully out-of-context response to Mark Malnichuck's question to the selectmen seeking an explanation on why they recently chose not to allow Deborah Viola and Tina Bogdanovic on the Perham Planning Board as alternates.
After a brief opening comment on the planning board members, Beckwith then focused, for no apparent reason on the Fort Fairfield Journal. “I have been slandered in this man's paper, regularly,” said Beckwith, referring to this writer.
Beckwith appears to have her terminology confused since slander refers to defamation via the spoken word. Defamation that appears in print, photographic or other forms that can be visually observed, such as in newspapers, is called ‘libel.’
The essential elements to slander and libel are a false accusation against the character of a person which affects his/her reputation, in that it tends to hold them up to ridicule, contempt, shame, disgrace or obloquy (see Black's Law, 5th ed.). The defenses to libel or slander are; 1.) the statements are the truth; and 2.) they were not done with malicious intent. Public servants occupy a different status than that of private individuals due to the fact that they have power and control - namely the taxation and police power over other people's lives and are thus allowed to be held under closer scrutiny and criticism. It is for this reason that the bar to prove libel and slander of a public servant is higher than that of private individuals.
According to The Guide to American Law, (©1984, West) “The public interest required that those who could furnish information about public servants should not be deterred from doing so by fear of a potential lawsuit that would require proving the truth of their statements in court.” (see Vol. 7, p. 173)
Furthermore, the qualified privilege of fair comment on public servants was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 in a ruling that stated defamatory communications concerning the official conduct of a public officer was privileged under the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press (see New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254). In Sullivan, the Supreme court also established the principle that a public official cannot recover damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to official conduct unless the official proves with convincing clarity that the statement was made with actual malice - which is knowledge that the statement in question was in fact false - or with reckless disregard of its genuineness.
This writer merely attends Perham selectman meetings, captures the audio with a recording device and transcribes the selectmen's quotes verbatim in order to give the public an accurate understanding and context of the way those meetings are conducted. At no time have any of the selectmen - especially Ms. Beckwith - contacted the Fort Fairfield Journal to indicate any of the quotes were incorrect, false, or that the events in the meetings had been inaccurately portrayed. Thus, no request for a retraction of false statements has ever been submitted to the Fort Fairfield Journal by the Perham board of selectmen. All Perham selectmen statements published in the Fort Fairfield Journal are true and are backed up by an audio recording of the event.
Beckwith also asked this writer, “Do you attend, by the way, any other town meetings and report on them? Are they your own reports or are they submitted by Ms. Viola or Bogdanovic?”
This writer advised Beckwith that the meetings are recorded and transcribed, I write my own stories based upon the “he said - she said” method of reporting. This writer does also attend other town meetings - namely those for Fort Fairfield - plus other meetings of local interest throughout the central Aroostook area as time and manpower allows.
“These articles are pieced together,” complained Beckwith, “they're bringing up things from six months to two years ago.”
The purpose for bringing up past events is for the benefit of the reader who may not have been following the story, or needs to have their memory refreshed. This contextual background is called the “back-story” - which this writer advised Beckwith was the case. To which she responded, “That's probably ‘yellow journalism.’”
After Beckwith's brief digression into attacking and focusing on the actions of the Fort Fairfield Journal's editor, Mr. Malnichuck attempted to steer the topic back to the original question of the selectmen’s decision on their planning board alternates. “That’s not answering my question,” Malnichuck told Beckwith, “you’re getting off track.”