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$3.5 million libel judgment reversed

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    News Media Update         OKLAHOMA         Libel         April 7, 2005    

$3.5 million libel judgment reversed

  • A news Web site is immune from defamation for a mistake in a public sexual offender registry republished from a state database, a state appellate court ruled.

April 7, 2005 — An Oklahoma appellate court reversed a jury’s $3.5 million libel judgment against a news Web site Friday, ruling it immune from liability for publishing an incorrect address contained in the state’s sexual offender registry.

Dennis L. Stewart sued NewsOK.com in 2002 for false light invasion of privacy and defamation after a neighbor passed around flyers saying a sexual offender, Ron Wesley Lyon, lived at Stewart’s address.

The neighbor got the information from NewsOK.com, which obtained the registry from the Department of Corrections and published it electronically. Lyon had not lived at the address for more than a year, but the department had not updated Lyon’s whereabouts in its database of names, aliases, addresses and other information about people convicted of certain sex crimes.

Despite local newspaper and television stories about the mistaken identity, Stewart sued, claiming NewsOK.com acted with reckless disregard in publishing the registry.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the appeal of the jury award, several media groups, including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that the $3.5 million award punished the press for providing access to public information.

“Interfering with the news media’s ability to republish government information will significantly hamstring the public access to public information,” the brief stated. “Only those members of the public who physically go to the document repository or government office will be able to acquire public information. The result would be particularly troubling and problematic in light of the decision of the Oklahoma legislature to make the information involved in this case widely available to the public.”

A three-judge panel of the Court of Civil Appeals agreed, ruling unanimously that republication of a public document is protected by the fair report doctrine in state law.

“The Legislature has stated that the Sexual Offender Registry is a public document. Republication of it was privileged as a matter of fair report. NewsOK.com was immune from liability,” Chief Judge Kenneth L. Buettner wrote for the court.

Even if the Web site was not immune under the fair report doctrine, a 1996 federal law immunizes it from liability. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides immunity to “interactive computer services,” such as NewsOK.com, that republish material provided by a third party.

NewsOK also argued that Stewart did not prove falsity, negligence or actual malice; that jury instructions were in error and that Stewart suffered no compensable damage because he presented no witnesses that thought he was Lyon or a sex offender.

“Because the matter is reversed on other grounds, we need not discuss these issues,” Buettner wrote.

(Stewart v. The Oklahoma Publishing Co., Media Counsel: Robert D. Nelon, Hall, Estill, Hardwick, Gable, Golden & Nelson)KM


© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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