More Than A Feeling

Tom Scholz, the MIT graduate and founder of the band “Boston”filed a libel suit last week against the Boston Herald. The suit claims that the Herald defamed Scholz by reporting on the suicide of Boston bandmate Brad Delp and indicating that a feud with Scholz led to Delp’s suicide. The stories at issue originally ran in March of 2007. Massachusetts has a three year statute of limitations, which is a little long. Ohio, for example has a one year statute. One of the interesting questions in a libel suit is whether the plaintiff is a “public figure.” If so, the plaintiff not only has to prove the report was false, but also that it was published with knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth. It’s a tough standard to meet, by design. The Supreme Court adopted that standard about 40 years ago to protect the First Amendment rights of those who report on public figures. So the question is, does a plaintiff who was a rock star 30 years ago still qualify as a public figure? The complaint makes it look like Scholz is conceding that he is a public figure. I suppose it would be tough for him to say otherwise. One other interesting aspect of the case is its contention that Scholz’s damages are exacerbated by the fact that the allegedly libelous stories pop up on Google searches for “Boston.” The fact that Internet users can so easily come across past news articles on search engines is a relatively recent wrinkle. In the past, stories didn’t have quite the same shelf life. It will be interesting to see how the law will evolve in the face of this new reality.