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Posted on: Feb 21, 2020

“The question before the court of appeals was whether the trial court erred in holding that the Andersons could not prove the fault element of their defamation claim. The issue whether the publications were defamatory was not before the court.”

Justice Donnelly, Majority Opinion

“The appellate court’s editorializing and commentary, while eye-catching, does not carry with it any weight of authority overruling our precedent in Lansdowne or creating a new duty or fault standard in private-figure defamation cases. See Interstate Sash & Door Co. v. Cleveland, 148 Ohio St. 325, 74 N.E.2d 239 (1947) (obiter dictum has no weight of authority). The court of appeals set forth the issue before it, quickly established its holding, and then began pontificating. The majority has now attached jurisprudential significance to bloviation.”

Justice Kennedy, Dissenting Opinion

On December 18, 2019, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down a merit decision in Anderson v. WBNS-TV, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-5196. In an opinion written by Justice Donnelly, the Court held that the appeals court applied the wrong standard in this private figure defamation case and sent the case back to the appeals court to apply the correct standard. Chief Justice O’Connor and Justices French, Fischer and Stewart joined the majority opinion. Justice DeWine concurred in judgment only, with an opinion.  Justice Kennedy wrote a scathing 33-page dissent. The case was argued April 24, 2019 at Geneva High School in Ashtabula County as part of the Court’s off-site program.

Case Background

On January 20, 2016, the Columbus Police Department sent out a media information sheet to various media outlets including appellant WBNS-TV (“WBNS”), describing the robbery of a hoverboard from an eight-year-old girl in the parking lot of a waterpark on November 26, 2015. The information sheet stated that suspects put a gun to the child’s head and demanded the hoverboard.  This sheet also asked for help in identifying the people in an accompanying photograph.  The people in the photograph were appellees Aaron, Aaronana, and Arron Anderson. The photograph was taken by a surveillance camera when the three siblings entered the park.

WBNS aired this information in a news segment during a 5 a.m. broadcast on January 21, 2016. During that broadcast, the station showed the picture of the 3 Andersons, while stating that the “girl was riding her hoverboard when robbers went up to her, put a gun to her head and took it. Columbus Police say suspects—seen here—took off in a PT cruiser.” An hour later, in another broadcast, the station ran the picture again, this time stating, “Columbus Police hope you recognize these two men who robbed an 8-year-old girl at gunpoint!” And on its website, the station published the picture with this text: “The suspects put a gun to the 8-year-old girl’s head * * *.”

Nanita Williams, the mother of the three Anderson children, saw the early morning broadcast, became extremely upset, woke the children and took them to the police station. After extensive questioning, the police determined that Aaron, Aaronana, and Arron had not been involved in this crime. The Columbus Police then released a statement that the people in the photograph had spoken to the police, who had determined they were not involved in the robbery.  When WBNS got this new information, the station employees removed the picture from its website, and did not use it again.

Appellees, the three Anderson children and their parents Willie Anderson and Nanita Williams (collectively, “the Andersons”) sued WBNS for defamation, among other things. The trial court granted summary judgment to WBNS on all counts, holding that the Andersons could not prove fault, an essential element of their defamation claim.  The Andersons appealed.

In a unanimous decision, the Tenth District reversed the trial court’s judgment on the defamation claim, stating that there was no question that WBNS had defamed some of the Andersons. The appeals court held that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether broadcasting an accusation that the Andersons were robbers without investigation, and based a set of police documents which claimed only that some of the Andersons were suspects, was sufficient to establish a violation of the requisite duty of care. The authoring judge also wrote “Frankly, a media outlet has a stronger duty to research the facts in such cases than it did when the Lansdowne case was decided.”

Read the oral argument preview of the case here and an analysis of the argument here.

WBNS’ Propositions of Law Accepted for Review

Proposition 1

First Amendment protections and jurisprudence extend to speech published on the Internet, and, specifically, this Court’s decision in Lansdowne v. Beacon Journal Publ’g Co., which set the fault standard in private-figure defamation cases, applies equally to statements published on the Internet.

Proposition 2

The Tenth District’s “stronger duty” requirement is unlawfully vague – it sets a “standard” that is untethered to principles of First Amendment jurisprudence.

Proposition 3

The law does not require the news media to conduct their own investigation or withhold publishing the news until they are able to contact the persons implicated or otherwise inquire into and corroborate official information supplied by law enforcement.

Proposition 4

Persons are not liable under the law of defamation for statements that they do not publish or authorize another to publish.

Proposition 5

In determining whether a statement is defamatory, a court must review the totality of the circumstances and by reading the statement in the context of the entire publication to determine whether a reasonable reader would interpret it as defamatory.

Proposition 6

The essential elements of a defamation claim do not turn on the relative financial condition of the plaintiff and defendant.

Does the Court Adopt WBNS’ Propositions of Law?

The majority adopts the first one and declines to address the rest.

Click here to continue reading.

Shared by Marianna Brown Bettman

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