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Judge rules businessman is “limited purpose” public figure

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         MINNESOTA         Libel         Dec 20, 2000    

Judge rules businessman is “limited purpose” public figure

  • The court ruled that a libel plaintiff must prove actual malice against ABC’s “PrimeTime Live,” and the show is not entitled to present the “fair report” privilege defense.

A Minnesota court has ruled that a local businessman was a “limited purpose” public figure in his libel suit against the ABC show “PrimeTime Live.” The court also ruled that the show failed to fairly and accurately report on the federal lawsuits that were the basis of its investigation.

On Dec. 1, Judge Joseph Wieners of Olmstead County District Court ruled that hotelier Gus Chafoulias was a “limited purpose” public figure because he voluntarily took part in the public controversy surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuits.

“PrimeTime Live” aired a show in 1997 detailing sexual harassment lawsuits brought by female employees at the Radisson Hotel in Rochester, Minn. The lawsuits alleged Chafoulias and the Radisson Corp. knew about the harassment by male guests but took no action. In 1998, Chafoulias sued the show and the women’s attorney, Lori Peterson, for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Peterson said in an interview with the show, “Chafoulias knew. Chafoulias has known for years that these women were being attacked, harassed, raped.”

To illustrate Chafoulias’ voluntary participation, the judge pointed to a letter he wrote to a local television station, the hiring of a public relations firm for the hotel and the comments he made, both directly and indirectly, to ABC about the allegations.

“All of this evidence tends to show that Mr. Chafoulias purposefully used his status and resources to access the media in an attempt to get his position on the Radisson controversy (a part of the broader public controversy) out to the public,” Wieners wrote in his decision.

Now in order to succeed with his claim, Chafoulias must prove ABC acted with actual malice when it made the allegedly defamatory statement.

The court denied ABC’s assertion of the fair and accurate report privilege, the affirmative defense that permits a defendant to avoid liability by showing that it accurately reported a judicial proceeding.

The judge said the show mislead its audience about Chafoulias’ knowledge of an attack on one woman. The judge also disputed the show’s characterization of groping and digital penetration as rape. Finally, the judge noted that ABC edited testimony of a woman that suggested she had not told Chafoulias of the incident.

As a result of the court’s ruling ABC filed on Dec. 14 for summary judgement under the actual malice standard. A decision on that new motion is pending along with a motion for reconsideration on the fair report privilege issue.

(Chafoulias v. Peterson; Media Counsel: Thomas Tinkham, Dorsey & Whitney, Minneapolis; Henry Hoberman, New York) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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