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Richmond paper sued for posting 911 call on Web site

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         VIRGINIA         Privacy         Dec 20, 2002    

Richmond paper sued for posting 911 call on Web site

  • Relatives of a shooting victim claim the newspaper invaded their privacy by publishing the contents of the emergency call three months after the incident.

The family of a man who died in a shooting in Virginia last year is suing the Richmond Times-Dispatch over the newspaper’s publication of the contents of the man’s 911 call.

The suit maintains that the newspaper, which posted the transcript and audio tape of the emergency call on its Web site, invaded the family’s privacy and exploited the incident for commercial gain.

James A. Lewis died of gunshot wounds in Richmond on Oct. 21, 2001. A depressed alcoholic, according to court documents, he was threatening to kill himself when he had his girlfriend call 911 for him. When police arrived, Lewis reportedly aimed a gun at an officer, and the police shot him four times.

The incident, including a conversation between Lewis and the 911 dispatcher who tried to convince him to seek help, was recorded.

The Times-Dispatch reported the shooting in articles published in October 2001.

The newspaper later made a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the 911 tape. The request was granted in January.

The newspaper posted an article, including a partial transcript and audio tape of the conversation, on its Web site Jan. 20.

Lewis’s mother and daughter claim in their lawsuit, filed Nov. 7, that the January article “was particularly harmful to the family, reopening the entire grief wounds and causing great mental and emotional anguish.”

They say the publication of the contents of the call “was no longer ‘news’ but instead constituted commercial exploitation of [the] tragedy, intended to prompt visits to the [paper’s] web site, and subscriptions to both the Web site and the newspaper.”

The family seeks $1 million in damages from Media General, Inc., which owns the Times-Dispatch.

The January article that contained the transcript of the call said the actual words “provide a rare and dramatic glimpse into the innerworkings of a police-assisted suicide.”

According to a Dec. 18 Editor & Publisher article, the newspaper’s executive editor, William H. Millsaps Jr., said that publication of the tape, which is an open record, was in the public’s interest.

(Huffman v. Media General, Inc.; Media counsel: Craig T. Merritt, Christian Barton LLP, Richmond, Va.) WT

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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