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Court upholds dismissal of police officer’s libel suit against newspaper

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Libel         Jan 9, 2002    

Court upholds dismissal of police officer’s libel suit against newspaper

  • Appellate justices ruled that a journalist did not act with actual malice when he reported a citizen’s complaint made at a public meeting.

A police officer’s libel suit against the Crookston Daily Times was justifiably dismissed because he could not prove that the newspaper acted with actual malice, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Jan. 2.

The nearly 4-year-old case stretches back to March 1998 when Times City Editor Mike Christopherson witnessed a local resident complaining to the city council during a public meeting that Gerardo Moreno, a Crookston police officer, was dealing drugs from the back of his police car.

Christopherson did not publish the story until two weeks later, after interviewing the police chief about rumors that officers had been arrested for dealing drugs. The chief told him that the rumors were not true, but that another law enforcement agency was investigating the citizen’s complaint against Moreno. Christopherson’s news story included the complaint from the city meeting and the chief’s later comments.

In finding that the newspaper did not act with actual malice — knowing that the information was false or with reckless disregard for the truth — the appellate court noted that Christopherson “chose not to write about the story until he had determined there actually was a story and was able to gather more information about it.”

Moreno has not decided whether he will appeal to the state Supreme Court, said his attorney, Kay Nord Hunt.

The case has bounced from trial court to appellate courts several times in the nearly four years since the story was published. Along the way, the case has helped define the limits of Minnesota’s “fair report” privilege — the right of journalists to fairly and accurately report the events of public proceedings.

Initially, the trial judge dismissed the libel suit, ruling that the article was protected by the privilege. The state Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal, finding that a showing of common-law malice would defeat the privilege. The newspaper appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rejected the malice argument but held that the “fair report” privilege does not apply if the report includes material extraneous to the public proceeding. Because the Times story included information beyond the public meeting, the high court sent the case back to the trial court to determine if the privilege applied to the article.

The trial court decided that the privilege did not protect the article. But since Moreno did not prove that the Times acted with actual malice, the trial court again dismissed the case. The appellate court’s Jan. 2 ruling affirms the dismissal.

The case leaves reporters in Minnesota with two guideposts, according to Times attorney Paul R. Hannah. The fair report privilege will protect reporting about information from public proceedings and public documents. Once reporters dig deeper and report matters beyond the scope of the meeting or document, they must take the usual care against claims of actual malice.

“You can’t go out and do a slipshod job of reporting beyond the meeting and try to hide all that under the fair report privilege,” Hannah said.

(Moreno v. Crookston Times Printing Co.; Media counsel: Paul R. Hannah, St. Paul) MD

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© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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