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Officers' libel, privacy claims over misconduct reports dismissed

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Officers' libel, privacy claims over misconduct reports dismissed 11/02/98 OHIO--An Ohio appellate court in Toledo in early October upheld a…

Officers’ libel, privacy claims over misconduct reports dismissed

11/02/98

OHIO–An Ohio appellate court in Toledo in early October upheld a lower court’s dismissal of invasion of privacy and defamation claims brought by several police officers who were named in a series of articles and editorials describing two decades of misconduct in the Toledo police department.

The court determined that dismissal of the claims was appropriate because Toledo’s The Blade newspaper obtained its information for the 1990 series from public records and reported accurately on problems within the police department. The court also determined that the editorial pieces targetted by the lawsuit were protected under the First Amendment as opinion.

The Blade series, entitled “The Secret Files of Internal Affairs,” recounted numerous accusations of police brutality and incompetence, as well as domestic abuse by officers. The articles were based primarily upon information gathered by reporters who had reviewed the internal affairs files of the Toledo police.

The reporters also relied upon court documents from multiple lawsuits filed against the department, including a suit filed by a 67- year-old man whose arm was broken by a police officer during an arrest and a suit filed by a 70-year-old man whose elbow was dislocated by an officer as he was waiting in a booking line after being arrested for drunken driving.

The court concluded that a reporter’s failure to interview one of the officers accused of police brutality in the series was possibly negligent, but alone did not support the officer’s allegation that the reporter had acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

In rejecting the officers’ invasion of privacy claims, the appellate court concluded that “the facts publicized were not private, they were already part of the public record” as internal affairs files. The information, the court stated, was also of legitimate public interest.

In rejecting the officers’ individual defamation claims, the court noted that police officers are clearly public officials who have to prove actual malice and emphasized that the reports of police misconduct had been accurate. The court also noted that reports of allegations of misconduct against certain officers that also included statements that the officers had been cleared of the allegations were not, in fact, defamatory. (Early v. Toledo Blade; Media Counsel: Fritz Byers, Toledo)