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Reporting facts from court proceedings privileged

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    News Media Update         NORTH DAKOTA         Libel    

Reporting facts from court proceedings privileged

  • The state Supreme Court reaffirmed that journalists who fairly and accurately use information from court documents and proceedings are protected against libel lawsuits.

Oct. 25, 2004 — An accurate report of facts from a court proceeding on a matter of public importance may not be the basis of a libel judgement, the Supreme Court of North Dakota ruled last week. A state statute provides a privilege for fairly reporting of such facts.

The court dismissed a libel claim brought by Libertarian Party candidate for North Dakota governor, Roland C. Riemers, against the Grand Forks Herald . While Riemers was running for U.S. Senate in 2002, the Herald published a story by staff writer Stephen Lee that cited court findings in Riemers’ 2001 divorce that he had beaten his wife and lied about his finances.

The trial court dismissed the libel claim Jan.13, and Riemers appealed to the Supreme Court of North Dakota.

The high court unanimously affirmed Oct. 15. The court noted that under North Dakota law, a statement must be false and unprivileged to be libelous, and that a statutory privilege exists for “a fair and true report, without malice, of a judicial, legislative, or other public official proceeding, or of anything said in the course thereof.”

In a brief opinion that quoted heavily from the trial court, Justice Mary Muehlen Maring found that the Herald satisfied the requirements of the statutory privilege. Lee’s story was an accurate report of the findings of the divorce court, and Riemers produced no evidence of malice or wrongful motive by Lee or the Herald in publishing the story. The story was a matter of public concern because it involved the truthfulness and history of violence of a candidate for public office.

(Riemers v. Grand Forks Herald; Media Counsel: Patrick W. Fisher, Fisher & Olson, Ltd., Grand Forks, ND) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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