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Reporter covering 1993 Waco raid ruled a 'public figure'

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Reporter covering 1993 Waco raid ruled a 'public figure' 10/19/98 TEXAS--A reporter who was on the scene of the disastrous…

Reporter covering 1993 Waco raid ruled a ‘public figure’

10/19/98

TEXAS–A reporter who was on the scene of the disastrous 1993 government raid on the Branch Davidian compound is a limited-purpose public figure, not a private individual, for purposes of a defamation suit he filed against a Dallas television station that reported he might have tipped off the Davidians and contributed to the failure of the raid, the state Supreme Court in Austin held in late September.

The court concluded that television news reporter John McLemore became a limited-purpose public figure by voluntarily involving himself in a public controversy, playing more than a trivial role in that public controversy, and subsequently alleging defamation that was germane to his participation in the public controversy.

Because the court found McLemore to be a limited-purpose public figure, it required him to prove that the Dallas television station, WFAA-TV, acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth — in allegedly defaming him. The court added that a WFAA reporter’s sworn statement that she believed her reports were accurate and were about a “highly newsworthy” investigation being run by law enforcement officials negated the presence of actual malice since McLemore presented no proof controverting her assertions.

McLemore covered the raid for KWTX-TV in Waco and was one of only a few reporters on the scene when several ATF agents and Davidians were killed or wounded. He sued WFAA for defamation in 1994 because the Dallas station had aired reports indicating he may have tipped off the Davidians about the raid. He claimed that the WFAA broadcasts damaged his reputation in the community.

The trial court denied WFAA’s motion for summary judgment, and an appellate court affirmed after concluding that McLemore was a private individual who only needed to prove negligence to prevail. The state Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower courts and threw out McLemore’s claim.

The state Supreme Court applied a three-part test to determine whether McLemore was a limited-purpose public figure who would have to prove actual malice to recover for defamation, or a private person who would just have to prove negligence.

The court first determined that there was a public controversy at issue. That public controversy was the broad question “of why the ATF agents failed to accomplish their mission.”

Next, the court found that McLemore played “more than a trivial or tangential role” in the controversy by voluntarily inviting public attention to the public discourse about the raid. “By reporting live from the heart of the controversial raid, McLemore assumed a risk that his involvement in the event would be subject to public debate,” the court declared.

Finally, the court concluded that the alleged defamation was directly related to McLemore’s participation in the controversy. “He was on the scene in his role as a journalist,” the court noted, and “WFAA’s alleged defamatory comments are indeed germane to McLemore’s participation in the controversy over the media’s role in the failed attack.”

McLemore plans to appeal the state Supreme Court’s dismissal of his suit to the U.S. Supreme Court. (WFAA-TV, Inc. v. McLemore; WFAA’s Counsel: Paul Watler, Dallas)