New “fair report” privilege covers police reports, court rules
MICHIGAN–Michigan’s recently-amended “fair reporting” privilege protects news articles and broadcasts that are based on police reports of criminal incidents, the State Court of Appeals in Lansing held in early September.
In a 3-0 decision, the court found that the new version of the statutory privilege extended protection to news reports that are “fair and true” reports of matters of public record, including governmental notices, announcements, written or recorded reports or records generally available to the public, or acts of a public body. The privilege previously only encompassed “public and official proceedings.”
The mid-level appellate court’s decision arose from an appeal by the Northland Wheels Roller Skating Center, after its suit against numerous media organizations was dismissed in 1990. The center had sued the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, several television stations, and the city of Detroit, following news reports of a fatal drive-by shooting outside the roller rink in October 1989. Northland contended that the news reports cast it in a false light among its business patrons and the community by portraying the rink as an unsafe establishment.
Newspaper articles by the Free Press and the News represented “fair and true” reports of information contained in the Detroit Police Department’s written reports or records that were generally available to the public pursuant to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, the appellate court said.
The Free Press article contained some information provided by a neighbor to the rink that the court found was outside the privilege. The court held that those sentences were not libelous because they were “substantially true” and “it is not defamatory to say that the victims were shot in or near plaintiff’s parking lot.” (Northland Wheels Roller Skating Center Inc. v. Knight-Ridder et al; Media Counsel Herschel P. Fink, Detroit)