California Court Rules on Defamation and Oral History

December 24, 2007—Christmas came early in an important case for archivists in the California Supreme Court.  In the case of Hebrew Academy of San Francisco v Goldman, the Court reversed an earlier opinion concerning oral histories found in the Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.

Two issues were at play in the case.  The first concerned whether the admittedly limited distribution of copies of oral histories in question was enough to activate California’s “single publication” rule, which normally limits defamation actions to within the first year of initial publication.  The court ruled that the Bancroft Library did, indeed, “publish” the oral histories many years ago.  In addition, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the clock to file an action should commence when an alleged defamation is discovered.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, there is no need to determine whether the statements in the oral history were actually defamatory.

The decision is good news for libraries in California that may republish or distribute potentially defamatory material.  One year after publication, the institution can breathe easier knowing that its risk has decreased.  This is the primary reason that SAA, in coalition with library organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants.

On the flip side, the case does raise the possibility that for at least one year, oral history programs may have to take editorial responsibility for the statements that are included in oral histories.  Libraries with oral histories should take care that they do not unintentionally disseminate falsehoods even as they seek to present the unvarnished words of the interviewee.