The privilege was first recognized in a 1977 case involving the New York Times, which reported accusations made by the National Audubon Society that a group of scientists were behaving as "paid liars" on the issue of whether DDT was harming bird populations. The story posed a dilemma. The reporter had a good sense that the Audubon Society had little or no evidence to back up its claims and that due to republisher liability he might well be liable for defamation if he published the story. But he also recognized that in his hands was a newsworthy story about an accusation made by a prominent organization. The court responded by recognizing a new form of First Amendment protection:
What is newsworthy about such accusations is that they were made. We do not believe that the press may be required under the First Amendment to suppress newsworthy statements merely because it has serious doubts regarding their truth. Nor must the press take up cudgels against dubious charges in order to publish them without fear of liability for defamation. . . . The public interest in being fully informed about controversies that often rage around sensitive issues demands that the press be afforded the freedom to report such charges without assuming responsibility for them.
Edwards, 556 F.2d at 120. The court explicitly stated that the reporter's knowledge of factual inaccuracies in the story was immaterial to whether or not the privilege applied.
Examples of the Neutral Reportage Privilege
Examples of instances where courts have applied the neutral reportage privilege include:
Newspaper report that a state auditor accused a town trustee of faking a snow emergency to gain access to emergency funds. Watson v. Leach, 1996 Ohio App. LEXIS 2474 (Ohio Ct. App. 1996).