Appeals court refuses to back libel ruling of British judges

November 12, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court refused this week to recognize a British court's ruling that one Soviet immigrant journalist libeled another when the two traded barbs in letters published in 1984 in a London newspaper.

The ruling means that Vladimir Matusevitch, who now lives in Montgomery County, will not have to pay Vladimir Telnikoff about $408,000 in damages.

In a 5-2 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote that the British court's judgment was based on principles "contrary to Maryland defamation law and to the policy of freedom of the press underlying Maryland law."

"This is in many ways an important and groundbreaking decision," said Patrick J. Carome, the Washington lawyer who represented Matusevitch in the case.

"This decision really erects a very significant barrier to the undermining of free speech rights," he said.

In a dissent, two judges wrote that U.S. First Amendment protections should not extend to British residents who defame other British residents in publications that circulate only in England, where it is easier for a plaintiff to win a libel case.

In February 1984, Telnikoff wrote an opinion article in the London Daily Telegraph criticizing the British Broadcasting Corp. for recruiting its Russian Service employees "almost exclusively from Russian-speaking national minorities of the Soviet empire" instead of ethnic Russians.

Within a week, Matusevitch, of Belarussian Jewish descent, had a letter in the Daily Telegraph, saying that "victims of these Soviet racialist (anti-Semitic) policies" fled the Soviet Union and were hired by the BBC based on professional qualifications.

He said Telnikoff wanted the BBC to "switch from professional testing to a blood test" and was "spreading racialist views."

Both men worked for Radio Free Europe at the time.

Telnikoff responded with another letter in April. Matusevitch refused to apologize. Telnikoff sued for libel. The case wound its way through several trials in British courts until 1992, when the British High Court of Justice ruled in favor of Telnikoff.

In 1993, Telnikoff sought to have U.S. courts enforce the ruling because Matusevitch had taken a job at Radio Free Europe's Washington headquarters. But in 1995, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found for Matusevitch. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia moved the case to the highest court in Maryland, where Matusevitch lived.

The majority opinion said that in this country, the dispute between the two men would have been viewed as "vigorous public debate."

Pub Date: 11/12/97

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