1st Amendment Helps NYPD Journalist Clear His Name

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Accused Journalist cleared of Defamation Charges Brought on by NYPD Officer

by Mike Vidafar

Len Levitt, a reporter who wrote the column "One Police Plaza" for Newsday from 1995-2005, was cleared of defamation charges on Mar. 22, 2012. The allegations, brought on by Port Authority Police Officer Francis Pisano, began in 2009, when a book by Levitt, NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force was reviewed in the New York Post.

According to an April 4, 2012 press release by The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), who agreed to take on Levitt's case, the New York Post included a picture of a police officer alongside a review the book, written by freelance journalist T.J. English. Levitt then re-posted the review on his personal website, NYPDConfidential.com.

In Dec. 2009, Officer Pisano brought charges against Levitt, T.J. English, several other members of New York Post and News Corp. (the parent company of the New York Post), maintaining that because Levitt's book details police corruption, readers would associate the officer photographed with the acts detailed in Levitt's book, according to the April 4 press release by The NYCLU.

News Corp.'s umbrella (including T.J. English) tied to the New York Post book review were able to reach a settlement outside of court with Pisano in Aug. 2010, according to the verdict issued by Nassau County Supreme Court's Hon. Thomas A. Adams. However, Levitt was not absolved of litigation alongside his co-defendants. Facing libel and slander charges that totaled $5 mil., according to the NYCLU Press Release, and unable to pay for sustained legal council in his defense, Levitt then found himself allied with NYCLU and attorney Ken Norwick, who acting cooperatively, agreed to take on the charges in Levitt's defense.

"For any ordinary person who did nothing wrong, being sued for $5 million is disquieting to say the least," Levitt said. "I am relieved a grateful to the NYCLU for taking my case."

In establishing Levitt's right to re-post the review on his website, Norwick established a familiar defense: Levitt's first amendment rights, which famously establish and protects the freedom of speech, and the rights of the press.

Citing the verdict rendered by Hon. Thomas A. Adams, The NYCLU's Communications Director, Jennifer Carnig, paraphrased the main reasoning behind the decision. "A 're-publisher' of any work may rely on the research of the original publisher, unless there is reason to question the accuracy of the article, or the good faith of the reporter."

"In this day and age it's critically important that we stand up for our First Amendment rights online. No one should be afraid to re-post a story from a reputable source on his or her blog or website," said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn.

No information, beyond the statement released by the NYCLU's Jennifer Caring, and the verdict judgment by Hon. Thomas A. Adams concerning the case, particularly Mr. Pisano's allegations were discovered by reporting staff. However, the NYCLU and Mr. Levitt have a cooperative relationship dating back to Oct. 2011, when the NYCLU agreed to file suit against The NYPD on Levitt's behalf. That decision was in response to the NYPD's refusal to make Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's schedule from 2002 to 2010 public under a request filed by Levitt under the Freedom of Information Law in May 2011.

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