Washington state appeals court upholds dismissal of defamation case against Seattle news station

Jack Komperda | Libel | News | January 15, 2013

A Washington state appellate court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed by a Seattle transitional housing service against a local television news station, while avoiding ruling on a challenge to the constitutionality of the state's anti-SLAPP law.

The defamation suit stems from stories televised in 2010 by KIRO TV and later published on its website detailing the practice of U.S. Mission Corporation in using residents of its transitional shelters, some of whom had criminal backgrounds, to solicit door-to-door donations.

Judge C. Kenneth Grosse wrote in his opinion that ultimately U.S. Mission was not able to establish that the “gist” or “sting” of the statements made by investigative reporter Chris Halsne in his reports were false, even though several statements made in describing the shelter’s operations – such as statements that “U.S. Mission ‘recruited’ felons and sent ‘bevies’ of felons into neighborhoods” – may not have been literally true.

Under the common law defamation claims made by U.S. Mission, KIRO needed to only show that the statements in its news reports were “substantially true” to avoid liability, not that every statement its reporter made was literally true.

In particular, Judge Grosse noted in his opinion that while characterizing the number of felons sent by the organization as a “bevy” suggests a large number of people, neither party submitted evidence as to the precise number of transitional shelter residents with felony backgrounds who solicited donations for the organization.

Even assuming that the reporter’s characterization was literally true, “U.S. Mission has not shown that the statement caused harm distinct from the harm caused by the true statements regarding U.S. Mission’s practice of requiring all of their residents, those with prior convictions and those without prior convictions, to engage in door-to-door solicitations,” Judge Grosse wrote in his opinion. “Accordingly, even if false, the statement did not affect the sting of KIRO’s stories.”

While affirming the trial court’s dismissal of the case under KIRO TV’s motion for summary judgment, the appellate court declined to address appeals made by both parties concerning the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. Short for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” the law is intended to dispose of meritless defamation suits early in the proceedings and penalize litigious plaintiffs by forcing them to pay a successful defendant’s attorney fees.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the court brief arguing in favor of the constitutionality of the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. And while both parties addressed the applicability of the law to the case in their respective court filings, Judge Grosse avoided addressing the issue.

“We avoid deciding constitutional issues where a case may be fairly resolved on other grounds,” he wrote.