Court of Appeals rules for TV station in DA’s libel lawsuit

The state Court of Appeals has unanimously overturned a lower court ruling that would have required  Nashville TV station WTVF and reporter Phil Williams to turn over documents related to reporting on Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, who has filed a libel lawsuit.

The court’s decision is HERE. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government says the ruling affirms “that fair and accurate news reports of judicial proceedings are protected from defamation claims” and is a victory for “the public, who rely on news media to report on what is happening in our courtrooms.”

Further from the TCOG summary of the case:

Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk sued NewsChannel 5, owned by Scripps Media, Inc., after reports by Williams were aired in February 2016 that were based on allegations in lawsuits by real estate developer David Chase.

Funk claims the stories injured his reputation because they alleged that he extorted money from a criminal defendant, solicited a bribe, and blackmailed a criminal defendant into dismissing a civil lawsuit while district attorney.

Because Funk is a public official, and the First Amendment protects robust speech about public figures and public affairs, he would have to prove actual malice to win a libel lawsuit. At the trial court, Funk argued that he should be able to force NewsChannel 5 to provide any documents held by the news organization to prove that the organization acted with “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Davidson County Circuit Court Judge William B. Acree agreed with Funk and granted a motion to compel NewsChannel 5 to turn over any documents related to the reporting of the story so that Funk could look for evidence of “actual malice”. But in an appeal of the trial court’s decision on the motion to compel production of any documents, the Court of Appeals in Nashville reversed Acree and said as long as the news reports were fair accounts of what happened in the courts (known as a fair report privilege), proving that malice existed by the news organization was essentially irrelevant.

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