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Ramsey family defamation case dismissed

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    News Media Update         COLORADO         Libel         Jan. 10, 2005    

Ramsey family defamation case dismissed

  • A 2002 Fox News report on the sixth anniversary of the murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was not libelous, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Jan. 10, 2005 — Fox News Network did not defame John and Patsy Ramsey’s family in 2002 when it reported, among other things, that detectives suspected the Ramseys in the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet, a federal judge in Colorado ruled Friday in dismissing the case.

Though the broadcast could have left some viewers with the impression that the Ramseys were involved in JonBenet’s murder, that alone is not enough to make the report libelous, Judge Phillip Figa ruled.

While “the broadcast does not exonerate plaintiffs from any involvement in the murder, it need not in order to avoid being defamatory,” Figa wrote.

Fox News reporter Carol McKinley told viewers that investigators said they had “good reason to suspect the Ramseys,” but the report as a whole did not leave the average viewer with the impression that the Ramseys, including Burke, JonBenet’s then 9-year-old brother, murdered the young beauty queen, Figa ruled.

“Taking the broadcast as a whole, it did not hold up any member of the Ramsey family to public contempt or ridicule or accuse any of them of participating in the murder [of] their youngest family member,” Figa wrote. “The broadcast was not a particularly unfair or unreasonable recapitulation of recent events on or about the sixth anniversary of the murder.”

He also offered the Ramseys some unsolicited advice: “Plaintiffs may well have filed this case more for vindication than for money, and perhaps vindication is what they deserve. But they have a better chance for meaningful vindication in the court of public opinion through vigorous debate about the background and details of this heinous crime than by suing those whose reporting may arguably include some less than favorable inferences about them.”

Lin Wood, the Ramseys’ attorney, told the Rocky Mountain News that no decision has been made on whether to appeal.

Figa’s opinion marks the first time a judge has ruled for the media and against the Ramseys, Wood told the paper. The family has settled six other defamation cases against news organizations, all filed on behalf of Burke, whom some organizations named as a suspect. Among the publications that have settled with the Ramseys for fingering Burke as the killer are Time magazine, the New York Post, Court TV, AOL Time Warner, Time Warner and Liberty Media, the Rocky Mountain News reported.

JonBenet was found strangled to death in the basement of her home on the day after Christmas in 1996. The case remains unsolved.

(Ramsey v. Fox News Network; Media counsel: Dori Ann Hanswirth, Hogan & Hartson, New York)KM

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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