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‘Most wanted’ program defamation claim revived

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  1. Libel and Privacy
    NMU         MONTANA    

    NMU         MONTANA         Libel         Oct 4, 1999    

‘Most wanted’ program defamation claim revived

  • A man depicted as a “fugitive” from the law has stated a claim for defamation against a cable program that broadcast his photograph and recounted the charges brought against him by local police

A telecommunications company that broadcasts the “Yellowstone County’s Most Wanted” cable program will have to stand trial for defamation of a person referred to on the show as a “fugitive,” “most wanted,” and “armed and dangerous,” under a mid-September Montana Supreme Court ruling.

The state Supreme Court in Helena reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the case against Billings Telecommunications Inc. and the City of Billings Police Department and sent it back to the lower court for trial. The court explained that while the information the police provided to TCI about Hale — his name, physical description, photo, and the crime he was charged with — seemed true, it could not agree that only one reasonable conclusion could be reached with regard to truth or falsity. Thus, the court concluded that a jury should decide the truth or falsity of the statements.

Hale brought defamation and negligence claims against TCI and the Billings police for publishing his photograph and personal information. Hale argued that the police acted negligently by not timely informing TCI of his arrest, thus preventing further broadcast of the information.

The information regarding Hale that was provided to TCI by Billings police continued airing for several days after his arrest. By the time the police notified TCI that Hale had been arrested, the one-week air time had expired, and the use of Hale’s photograph and information had been discontinued.

The state’s highest court found that when the police and TCI informed the public Hale was a fugitive who could be armed and dangerous, they may have led viewers to believe those statements were true. The court explained that such statements can “cause damage” and are actionable “if they contain a provably false factual connotation or can reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual.”

Furthermore, the Supreme Court found that a duty of reasonable care arises from dissemination of information, therefore, the lower court erred in determining that the police owed no duty to Hale regarding timely notification to TCI of his arrest.

(Hale v. City of Billings; Counsel: Calvin J. Stacey, Billings)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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