Calling its editors "the modern equivalents of Thomas Paine or John Peter Zenger," the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down a libel suit against the Let's Go travel guide and Harvard Student Agencies (HSA) March 20.
The suit was filed in 1990 by the proprietor of an Israeli youth hostel, Itzik Shaari, after Let's Go's 1989 and 1990 Israel & Egypt edition warned travelers to avoid his hostel because he allegedly sexually harassed three women.
"I think it's a victory for our readers," said Catherine J. Turco '99, president of HSA. "The safety of our audience is of utmost importance. The decision ensures we can provide accurate and honest information without fear of censorship."
The suit, which had been ongoing for eight years, was one of the most significant ever filed against HSA or the travel guide.
"It's definitely a rarity," said Amit Tiwari '98, president of HSA last year. "It's not very often that we get sued, and I don't think we'd ever been sued for such a prolonged time."
The court's ruling is a major set-back for the state's libel law, which dates back to 1828. Under the law, even in cases where printed material is truthful, the publishers can be held liable if "actual malice" is demonstrated.
"[The law] is very unusual," said Rosanna Sattler of Boston-based Posternak, Blankstein & Lund, who represented HSA in the case. "I think everyone was pretty surprised that this statute was still alive."
The decision means that truth is now a valid defense for members of the media sued by private individuals, so long as the published material is a matter of "public concern," Sattler said. A 1985 ruling gutted the portion of the law applying to public figures.
"It's a First Amendment kind of a fight instead of just a libel suit," said Caroline R. Sherman '98, publishing director of HSA, who is responsible for the Let's Go series. "I'm obviously glad for our sake that we won, but also because of the larger implications."
The 1989 edition of Let's Go: Israel & Egypt steered readers away from Shaari's International Youth Hostel in Jerusalem, warning, "Women should
Let's Go did not review the guide after 1990,and the International Youth Hostel went out ofbusiness in the early 1990s, Sattler said.
Attorneys for HSA and St. Marten's proved theclaims of sexual harassment were true, conductingdepositions with former travelers in South Africaand England. However, citing the antiquated libelstatute, a state superior court kept the suitalive until this month's ruling.
"To apply this statute to the defendants'truthful defamatory statement concerning a matterof public concern...violates the First Amendment,"the Supreme Judicial Court held.
The decision will have little impact onday-to-day activity at HSA.
"It's encouraging, but it's not going to changeanything operationally," Tiwari said.
However, Let's Go now spends a full daybriefing writers and editors about libel laws andrestrictions, he said.
The Let's Go series of travel guides is themost popular in the world, with more than onemillion readers, Turco said.