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Monday, October 12, 2009

Courts - A short course on Michigan criminal procedure; and what can go wrong in the reporting [Updated]

Written for Detroit Free Press reporters, Joe Grimm reports the highlights of a crash course in criminal procedure. Access it here.

Most interesting was the introductory paragraph:

Although Michigan courts have spent decades developing criminal procedure, newspapers sometimes have just minutes to describe them. Mistakes can be costly.

Attorney Herschel Fink, who represents the Free Press in court, illustrates the potential for harm with a case filed against the Battle Creek Enquirer. The newspaper ultimately won the case, but only after 13 years and a million dollars in legal fees. The $1 million question? Whether a man had been arrested and charged or just arrested.

Yesterday's Bergen New Jersey Record had this story by Jerry Demarco that began:
The state Supreme Court this week could well determine the future of media in New Jersey when it reviews a lower court ruling that the Bergen Record can be sued for reporting allegations from a lawsuit before the case has gone to trial.

What's known as the "fair reporting privilege" has protected the media from defamation suits when a story discloses accusations made in a court filing. In other words: Newspapers weren't liable for any claims accurately quoted in a lawsuit, whether or not the charges had any relationship to the truth.

A Nov. 2008 appeals court decision against the practice by North Jersey Media Group (which publishes the Bergen Record) turned that approach on its head. Then, in January, the Supremes froze the ruling -- without reversing it -- so that it could review the case. That comes this Wednesday.

Given "legacy" media's tendency to run with any and all allegations contained in lawsuits, no matter who files it, the high court's eventual decision could change the way news is reported in New Jersey.

All this calls to mind the 2008 $1.5 defamation verdict against the Terre Haute Tribune Star - here is a list of ILB entries. This Aug. 26, 2008 story headed "Tribune-Star launches appeal of libel verdict," along with the linked brief supporting the motion to correct errors, describes the background in detail. The T-S subsequently withdrew its appeal.

[Updated 10/13/09]
A story by Michael Ford in the Oct. 11th edition of The Courier, a Russelville Arkansas paper, reports:
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined a request by attorneys for a Russellville man to review a state court’s unanimous decision that a Pope County judge was correct in dismissing a libel lawsuit filed in 2007 against The Courier.

John Tull, an attorney representing The Courier, said Thursday he hopes the decision will be the final chapter of the case. “It’s what we anticipated,” Tull said of the court’s decision. “We thought the Arkansas Supreme Court decided the case on solid grounds. We didn’t think there was any matter left unresolved.” * * *

Previously, Pope County Circuit Judge Dennis C. Sutterfield issued a summary judgment effectively dismissing the case Nov. 19, 2007, after Whiteside sued, asserting a Jan. 11, 2007, article which indicated the alleged rape of a woman occurred during a party as his home in December 2006 was libelous and defamatory.

In March, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed Sutterfield’s dismissal, ruling The Courier “fairly and accurately” reported information released — albeit inadvertently — as part of a case report through the Russellville Police Department’s computerized records system.

The court noted the newspaper was not required to investigate whether access to the report was intended, noting the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled “the First Amendment protects against the “timidity and self-censorship’ that may result from such an approach.”

Whiteside’s attorney claimed in the most recent filing that “unconfirmed preliminary narrative(s)” in a police report were not official public documents, nor were they legally or voluntarily released, disputing whether The Courier was entitled to the benefit of the fair-report privilege — and whether the newspaper had the right to allegedly go beyond the “gist and sting” of the report by mentioning the allegations in the context of a murder trial. * * *

The lawsuit could have curtailed reporters’ ability to use police records and other official documents. Such records comprise the backbone of reports by news organizations, which have relied on the fair-report privilege for decades as a defense. Even if information within the documents turn out to be false, reporters largely remain covered by the privilege.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 12, 2009 03:57 PM
Posted to Courts in general