The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday expanded protections for reporters by ruling they can only be held liable for defamation if their reporting is not fair and accurate, regardless of their personal feelings toward a subject.
Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk sued investigative reporter Phil Williams for defamation in 2016, arguing there is an exception to a law that protects journalists when the reporter acts out of malice.
The $200-million suit against Williams and WTVF-TV station owner Scripps Media cites news reports aired in 2016 based on sealed court documents. Funk has interpreted the reports as accusing him of soliciting a bribe, extortion and blackmail. Williams' attorneys, in their pleadings, have said the stories simply reported on allegations made by others.
The case stalled over questions of what information Williams is required to hand over to Funk in the discovery phase. Funk wanted Williams to give him all the information he gathered and produced in reporting his stories so Funk could try to prove that Williams acted out of malice.
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Tennessee's fair report privilege protects reporters from defamation suits when they report fairly and accurately on an official action or proceeding. But there is precedent for considering whether a reporter harbors malice toward a subject.
Williams' attorneys argued against that interpretation. They were joined by The Associated Press and a dozen other news organizations with operations in Tennessee along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
That brief argued that Tennessee precedent regarding malice was outdated and ran afoul of both U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the First Amendment.
In its Wednesday ruling, the high court presented a hypothetical in which two reporters cover defamatory statements made during a judicial proceeding. One of the reporters dislikes the person about whom the statements were made and the other doesn't.
Under Funk's desired interpretation, one reporter would be covered by the fair report privilege and the other would not.
"This result would neither advance the purposes of the fair report privilege nor protect the individuals about whom defamatory statements were made," the court concluded. "The privilege can only be defeated by showing that a report about an official action or proceeding was unfair or inaccurate."
But the case is not over. It now goes back to the lower court to determine whether the news reports were both fair and accurate and based on an official action or proceeding.