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Fair report privilege applies to police reports, court says

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The Arkansas Supreme Court has dismissed a libel lawsuit against the Russellville-based Courier News, ruling that the fair report privilege…

The Arkansas Supreme Court has dismissed a libel lawsuit against the Russellville-based Courier News, ruling that the fair report privilege applies to police reports and provided the paper with a defense from the suit.

The paper was sued by Ryan Whiteside, who was mentioned in a police report the newspaper obtained in early 2007. In the report, a woman alleged that she was raped at Whiteside’s home and a witness said she saw Whiteside raping the victim. But in between the time the newspaper obtained the report and went to press, the witness recanted her account to the police. The local district attorney also said there was no evidence implicating Whiteside. Charges were never filed.

The paper ran the story without the new information from the witness or the district attorney; Whiteside sued for libel. The paper won summary judgment in the lower court based on the fair report privilege. Whiteside appealed.

In his appeal to the high court in Arkansas, Whiteside argued that the fair report privilege shouldn’t apply because the newspaper was mistakenly given a copy of the report from the police department. He also argued that the newspaper’s account wasn’t a fair and accurate portrayal of the report.

But within a week of oral arguments, the court issued a 15-page opinion ruling that the newspaper was protected by the fair report privilege and granting summary judgment in its favor.  

The court ruled that police reports and witness statements are “official records” for purposes of the privilege and went on to say:

“There is nothing to suggest that the privilege is lost because the newspaper failed to investigate whether or not it was supposed to have access to that portion of the report. In fact, the United States Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects against the “timidity and self-censorship” that may result from such an approach.”