AP Story Errs in Reporting "Actual Malice" Standard:

From an AP story:

The Supreme Court has rejected a plea by former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill to revive his libel lawsuit against The New York Times over columns falsely implicating him in the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks.

The justices did not comment Monday in turning down Hatfill's appeal of a unanimous ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va. A three-judge panel affirmed a lower court's dismissal of the libel claims on the grounds that Hatfill is a public figure and failed to prove that columns written by Nicholas Kristof were malicious....

No, actually the panel reasoned that Hatfill failed to prove that the columns were published with what libel law calls "actual malice": "that The Times had knowledge that the columns were false or published them with reckless disregard of whether they were false." "Actual malice" is thus a legal term of art that has little to do with what English speakers actually call malice (in the sense of ill will).

So this is partly the fault of the lawyers. You'd hope that "malice" in law would mean what "malice" means in English, but if it doesn't, at least you'd hope that "actual malice" would actually mean that. No such luck.

But mass-market journalists' job is to translate jargon into English, and to know jargon when they see it. Unfortunately that didn't happen here.

More broadly, keep an eye out for this sort of slip: When you hear "malice" talked about in articles about libel lawsuits, it probably means "knowledge the statement was false, or reckless disregard of whether it was false." Except, unfortunately, when it doesn't, since sometimes "malice" even in libel lawsuits does really mean "malice" in the sense of "ill will." Arggh.

Thanks to Bill Poser (Language Log) for the pointer.

UPDATE: Added a link to the panel opinion (sorry to have omitted it originally); that should help answer people's questions about why the panel concluded Dr. Hatfill was a "limited-purpose public figure."