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Press conference statements not immune from libel claim

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Libel   ·   May 23, 2007

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   UTAH   ·   Libel   ·   May 23, 2007

Press conference statements not immune from libel claim

  • Lawyers and parties to legal proceedings can be liable for false and defamatory comments made in connection with a trial at press conferences, the Utah Supreme Court has held.

May 23, 2007  ·   The Utah Supreme Court ruled last week that attorneys and parties to a lawsuit can be sued if they make defamatory statements during press conferences.

Although statements connected with judicial proceedings are usually protected by privilege in Utah, the court said that this privilege probably does not apply to most statements made at press conferences.

Even if the privilege does apply, the court said, immunity is waived when there is “excessive publication” of the statements.

The case began in August 2003 when Mary Ann Nelson filed a lawsuit against several of her family members and alleged that she was forced to enter into a polygamist marriage with her uncle when she was 16 years old. Nelson’s lawsuit named hundreds of defendants, including Nevin and Denise Pratt, that she said were tied to the polygamist organization.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Nelson and her attorneys held a press conference regarding the case that “made local, national and international news,” according to the opinion. At the conference, Nelson and her attorneys made several comments that the opposing parties alleged were false and defamatory.

Though Nelson did not refer to the Pratts by name, one of her attorneys said that the people named in the lawsuit were “key members” of the polygamist organization.

The Pratts also claimed that the initial complaint filed in the case by Nelson was defamatory.

The court said that the purpose of the “judicial proceeding privilege” is to “promote candid and honest communication between the parties and their counsel in order to resolve the dispute.”

Consequently, the court found that while the court filing was protected by privilege, the press conference statements were not. “Statements made and distributed to the press concerning pending or ongoing litigation do little, if anything, to promote the truth finding process in a judicial proceeding,” the court reasoned.

The court further explained that even though “it is doubtful statements made at a press conference qualify” for any kind of privilege, Nelson and her attorneys had waived that privilege, if there was one. The court said that they were “disinclined” to extend any privilege “in a case such as this where a party called a press conference and distributed various statements to the media for widespread dissemination.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to a trial court to further consider the libel claim. The trial court and intermediate court had ruled in favor of the Nelsons, saying the Pratts did not file certain court papers in time.

(Pratt v. Nelson)ES

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