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'Fair report' privilege defeated if allegations investigated

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Libel         May 22, 2000    

‘Fair report’ privilege defeated if allegations investigated

  • The state high court found that a “fair report” privilege applies to news reports of city council meetings, but does not apply if additional comments in the article comment on the veracity of allegations made.

The state’s “fair report” privilege covers reports of remarks made at city council meetings, but not to additional material included in an article that is defamatory or comments on the veracity of charges reported, the state Supreme Court held May 18.

The court noted that state law was not previously clear on whether the privilege extended beyond judicial proceedings.

In addition, the court rejected the argument that a showing of common-law malice — ill will or improper motive — would overcome the privilege. The public policy objectives behind the privilege — the dissemination of information discussed at public proceedings — demand only that the report be fair and accurate, and motive is irrelevant, the court held.

The decision sends a libel case against the Crookston Daily Times back to the trial court to determine whether statements made in part of a Times article that sought to investigate allegations made at a city council meeting were defamatory or bolstered the claims made at the meeting.

Times city editor Mike Christopherson witnessed local citizen Dennis McDaniel complain to the Crookston City Council meeting in March 1998 about problems facing children. McDaniel asked the council to “stop Officer Moreno from dealing drugs out of his police car.”

Ten days later, Christopherson heard rumors that an officer was going to be arrested. The police chief told him the rumors were not true, and specifically denied that Moreno had been arrested. Asked about McDaniel’s allegation, the chief said the police department “would be remiss” if it did not follow up on the complaint.

A subsequent news report mentioned that the department was following up on the allegation. It also noted the rumors of an officer’s arrest, and mentioned that the chief said the rumors were untrue and that he had been with Moreno much of the day.

Moreno sued, but his case was dismissed. The trial judge found that the article was a fair and accurate report of a public proceeding. He rejected the officer’s claim that the fair report privilege is inapplicable because he would be able to show that the report was made with malice.

An appellate court overturned the dismissal, finding that a showing of common-law malice would defeat the privilege, and the newspaper appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rejected the malice argument, but noted that much of the Times article was dedicated to investigating the charges, which can negate the protection of the fair report privilege.

Three paragraphs reported on the allegations made before the council, while six followed up on the charges, the court pointed out. The mention of an official investigation could be viewed as adding credibility to McDaniel’s allegations and “could increase the defamatory effect” of the article. In addition, the article’s last paragraph, mentioning that McDaniel is an “outspoken citizen, and is a frequent contributor to the Times‘ Editorial Page,” arguably speaks to McDaniel’s credibility.

Therefore, the trial court must examine whether the additional information did indeed defame Moreno or bolster the credibility of McDaniel, to determine if the fair report privilege still applies to the story, the court ruled.

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

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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