Reporter’s suit against town officials allowed to continue
OHIO–Officials from a Michigan town can not be granted official immunity in a lawsuit brought by a reporter who claims they harassed her and interfered with her reporting after she wrote unflattering articles about their conduct, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) ruled in mid-November.
The three-judge panel unanimously upheld the July 1995 ruling of a federal District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich. The appellate court stated that the right of freelance reporter Noreen McBride to be free from reprisals for reporting news about elected officials was clearly established when the alleged acts occurred.
However, the appellate court sent the case back to a District Court in Grand Rapids for further consideration of McBride’s claims. The appellate court instructed the lower court to differentiate acts that should be protected by village officials’ free speech rights from those that involved intimidation, harassment, and retribution directed at McBride for exercising her free speech and press rights.
The case arose from an alleged series of actions the village took against McBride, who reported for several news organizations in northern Indiana and southern Michigan. McBride had reported that Michiana, Mich. officials mishandled public funds, violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act and made efforts to encourage non-residents to vote in village elections.
Between 1989 and 1992, officials retaliated against McBride’s coverage by encouraging local newspapers to stop using her for government coverage, threatening her with physical removal if she would not leave government meetings, and denying her access to information, McBride claimed. She also contended that at open government meetings she was verbally abused and on one occasion an official hurled a chair at her and other members of the press. On another occasion, officials refused to start the meeting unless McBride left the press table.
The Michiana officials claimed that they should be granted qualified immunity because “there was no clearly established law that their alleged actions were violative of the Plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”
In April 1993, the federal District Court dismissed McBride’s suit, stating that her arguments did not support a claim of deprivation of constitutional rights. However, McBride appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reversed, stating that because the officials were acting in their official capacity, McBride’s allegations constituted a First Amendment claim. (McBride v. Village of Michiana; Media Counsel: Tat Parish, Watervliet)