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Paper wins libel, false light case in high court

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  1. Libel and Privacy
NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   IDAHO   ·   Libel   ·   May 30, 2007 Paper wins libel,…

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   IDAHO   ·   Libel   ·   May 30, 2007

Paper wins libel, false light case in high court

  • Court cites lack of evidence to overcome standards for public officials to sue for libel.

May 30, 2007  ·   The former Idaho Republican Party chairman did not have enough evidence to prove defamation or that he was portrayed in a false light by a newspaper report, according to a Thursday judgment in the Idaho Supreme Court.

Reporter Thomas Clouse of The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., co-wrote an article published in February 2001 about a Republican candidate for state Senate who had been arrested 17 years ago on drug charges. Party chairman Trent Clark issued a press release in response that criticized the article and supported the candidate.

Clouse then conducted a follow-up telephone interview with Clark and Idaho Republican Party Communications Director Paula Garriot. Clouse was the only person to take notes during the interview, according to the court documents.

In a following article, Clouse quoted Clark as saying, “You probably cannot find an African American male on the street in Washington, D.C., that hasn’t been arrested or convicted of a crime.”

Clark sued the paper, its publisher, its former editor and Clark, saying the article misquoted him and, by doing so, libeled him and invaded his privacy by placing him a false light before the public.

Clark disputed the quote and claimed he said, “You probably cannot find an African American male on the street in Washington, D.C. who doesn’t have friends who have been arrested or convicted of a crime.”

The high court held Clark is a public figure under the test articulated in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan. Thus, it said, he could recover damages in a defamation case if he could provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the newspaper acted with “actual malice” — that is, the knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.

Clark, the press secretary and Clouse disagreed whether the statement in question was taken out of context.

Writing for the high court, Justice Roger Burdick said the disagreement did not matter, which upheld the lower court ruling granting summary judgment for Clouse, the former editor, the publisher and the paper in the defamation claim.

Burdick wrote that “even assuming for the purposes of argument that the published statement was false,” Clark could not show the reporter acted with actual malice.

The court noted that the statement as quoted in the newspaper was consistent with the reporter’s notes and with what he remembered of the conversation.

Clark had also said Clouse was “offended” by the press release critical of Clouse’s reporting, and said that was evidence the journalist acted with actual malice. But the high court said the evidence showed Clouse believed the statement to be quoted accurately and that Clark had insufficient evidence to prove the reporter had serious doubts about the quote.

“In the face of this evidence, Garriot’s perception that Clouse was ‘very upset’ and ‘very offended’ when he called to set up an interview with Clark is not clear and convincing proof that Clouse acted with actual malice,” Burdick wrote.

The court also upheld the lower court ruling for summary judgment holding that Clark also did not have enough evidence to prove his false light claim.

Clark initially sued in a lower court after the article was published. The lower court dismissed his claim, which Clark appealed to an intermediate court. That court also ruled for the newspaper.

“This is a reaffirmation of the important concept that reporters, when dealing with persons of prominence, have leeway in reporting on those people without fear of being sued for defamation so long as they are not making things up or knowingly lying about that person,” Spokesman-Review lawyer Duane Swinton said.

(Clark v. The Spokesman-Review, Media Counsel: Duane M. Swinton, Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole, P.S., Coeur d’Alene, Idaho)NC

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