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Court to rule on fair report privilege

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The Arkansas Supreme Court will soon decide whether the fair report privilege protects a local newspaper from a plaintiff's claims that it…

The Arkansas Supreme Court will soon decide whether the fair report privilege protects a local newspaper from a plaintiff’s claims that it published false information from a police report.

Plaintiff Ryan Whiteside sued The Courier of Russellville, Ark., for defamation after the newspaper ran a story in 2007 that quoted from a police report alleging that a woman had been raped at Whiteside’s home.

The case was before the high court on appeal Thursday. Whiteside and his attorneys argued in the original 2007 complaint that the article was defamatory and the editor and reporter were negligent in hastily printing details of an inadvertently obtained 2006 police report, primarily because Whiteside was also involved in a high-profile local murder case.  According to the complaint, the newspaper acted irresponsibly for publishing information from a report marked "No Press" before the police had finished a preliminary investigation and failing to contact Whiteside for comment.

But The Courier is protected by the fair report privilege, the newspaper’s attorneys say, which can protect publications from libel claims if they relied on information from an official public record.  The Courier obtained the information from a media-only computer at the police station, said John Tull III, the Little Rock attorney representing the newspaper, adding that the newspaper had contacted the police station for follow-up on the case prior to publication. "I am confident that we have the better side of the argument particularly given this situation where the information was specifically provided by the police department," he said.

Tull pointed out that Arkansas case law provides little information on the fair report privilege.

Recently, other courts have been examining the privilege. In January, the New Jersey Supreme Court temporarily suspended a lower court ruling that limited the fair report privilege.

Richard Peltz, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law School, said this case is part of a larger trend of "perceived media irresponsibility." The legal system has recently been more receptive to "contramedia" claims, he said, and "as a result, you’re seeing an erosion of First Amendment of quasi-First Amendment rights in places where they’re not firmly established."

Peltz, who attended the oral arguments, said he was optimistic that Arkansas, what he called a historically "solid" state in protecting free speech rights, would correctly apply the fair report privilege in this case. "When it is used properly, it is essential for the free press and the free speech system," he said.

A decision in the case should come within the next two weeks, Tull said.