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Fair report privilege bars suit against newspaper

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         ILLINOIS         Libel         May 25, 2001    

Fair report privilege bars suit against newspaper

  • A state appeals court dismissed allegations of libel and invasion of privacy against a newspaper that used information from prosecutors as the basis for an article.

A former police chief cannot sue a newspaper that reported he had been the subject of a rape investigation, according to a decision by the Appeallate Court of Illinois.

On April 24, Judge Gordon E. Maag dismissed libel and invasion of privacy claims filed by Robert Hurst against the Belleville News Democrat because the fair report privilege covered the newspaper’s article.

In November 1995, the newspaper repeated a story broadcast by a St. Louis television station that Hurst, then a former police chief of Belleville, had been questioned for two hours by police in a rape investigation. The paper also recounted information released from the local prosecutor that the victim knew her attacker and that “there is not a serial rapist out there.”

The trial court certified several questions of law to the appellate court.

In ruling in favor of the newspaper, Maag said that the article did not charge Hurst with a crime or otherwise impute the commission of a crime to Hurst. In the News Democrat article, it reported that the former police chief had been questioned in the investigation. Thus, the court ruled, there was nothing defamatory about the article.

The judge also ruled that the fair report privilege protected the newspaper from a lawsuit based on its report of the prosecutor’s comments. The privilege protects the media from liability when they report news accounts of official statements. A report must be accurate and complete for a court to recognize the privilege. Here, the court determined the paper provided a sufficiently fair and accurate summary of public statements made by the prosecutor.

(Hurst v. Capital Cities Media, Inc.) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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