• August 3, 2018

From time to time, our Minnesota Supreme Court surprises us by taking cases that, in our view, were plainly correctly decided by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

This is the case with Larson v. Gannett Co., et al., a defamation lawsuit brought by Mr. Ryan Larson, who was incorrectly arrested and apparently charged with murder but was subsequently 100% exonerated.

In essence, Mr. Larson sued media companies for reporting on law enforcement’s bungled job arresting and apparently charging him briefly, an innocent man.

The Court of Appeals threw out Mr. Larson’s case against the media defendants holding:

(1) the fair-report privilege protected appellants’ news reports that accurately summarized and fairly abridged statements made by law enforcement at an official press conference and in an official news release; and (2) the district court erred in vacating the jury’s verdict that appellants’ statements were not false and in ordering a new trial.

Read the Court of Appeals decision yourself and try to figure it where it went wrong if at all.

Consider the policy implications if news organizations that reported on law enforcement officials’ news conferences and press releases faced civil liability if law enforcement screwed up.

(Here is the petition for Supreme Court review, and here is the response to the petition.)

There is no doubt that widely disseminated reports that lead many in the community to assume an innocent person is guilty of a heinous crime is devastating for the subject of the reports. Who is not sympathetic to Mr. Larson for this horrible turn of events?

On the other hand, the root problem with Mr. Larson’s situation was law enforcement’s jumping the gun, as it were.

In a free society which relies heavily on an informed population, can we really hold our publishers responsible for disseminating information they get from law enforcement? How exactly does that play out? When law enforcement announces arrests or charges, are reporters supposed to undertake their own criminal investigations to corroborate what the police are saying before they report on it? Are they supposed to keep quiet until there is a guilty plea or a conviction?

To the extent the facts of the Larson case reflect a problem with our laws, maybe it is that our laws over-protect law enforcement rather than the press.

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