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Reporters not liable over newsgathering tactics

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         FLORIDA         Privacy         Mar 23, 2001    

Reporters not liable over newsgathering tactics

  • A state appeals court found that the Seminole Tribe did not have a valid claim when members turned over confidential documents to reporters covering casino mismanagement.

A Florida appellate court ruled on March 21 that the Seminole Tribe could not hold two St. Petersburg Times reporters responsible for business interference when they received documents that tribe leaders considered confidential.

In its ruling, the state Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach (4th Dist.) underscored the legal principal that the publication of truthful information obtained through lawful means was constitutionally protected. The newspaper later published articles covering Seminole Tribe financial impropriety, casino mismanagement and business failures.

“Most important to the balancing process in this case is an evaluation of the interests the reporters sought to further by their conduct and the social value of protecting those interests,” the court said. “The conduct about which the Tribe complains is the reporters’ news gathering, an activity of constitutional significance.”

In 1997, Times reporters Bradley Goldstein and Jeff Testerman contacted members of the Seminole Tribe in Florida and encouraged them to provide certain documents related to finances, leadership and government subsidies. The members voluntarily turned over the documents to the reporters. In December, the series of articles appeared in the newspaper and the tribe sued the Times, Goldstein and Testerman for interfering with its business relationships with other organizations and claimed damages based on the publication of stories with confidential information.

The trial court in Broward County dismissed the case last April, finding the claims were without merit. On March 21, the Court of Appeals agreed. The court pointed out that casino gambling and Seminole Tribe conduct and business were of public concern in Florida.

“Considering the public interest in the free flow of information, the routine news gathering techniques used in this case, the subject matter of the information obtained as being of public concern, and the limited intrusion into the relationship between the Tribe and its employees and agents, we hold that the amended complaint fails to state a cause of action for tortious interference.”

The appeals court also upheld the dismissal by the lower court of a claim that Times editors were negligent in their supervision of the reporters.

(Seminole Tribe v. St. Petersburg Times; Alison Steele, George K. Rahdert, Rahdert, Anderson, McGowan & Steele) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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