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Say it Ain't So

A fellow by the name of Todd was sitting around watching TV with some buddies one day when the news reported that Todd was wanted for the attempted murder of a young fellow and that Todd was considered armed and dangerous. It seems this young fellow called the police and reported that Todd showed up at his house looking for the young fellow's sister. When the young fellow indicated she wasn't home, he said that Todd shot him in the stomach. The young fellow informed the police that Todd had access to automatic weapons, was stalking his sister and was a survivalist.

The police called a news conference and sought the help of the media in apprehending Todd. Channel 11 up north ran the story and Todd was ultimately apprehended at a local bowling alley. Channel 11 then reported that Todd had been apprehended and would be charged forthwith.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the hanging. The young man who reported the incident later confessed that it was actually a self-inflicted wound and Todd had nothing to do with it. Needless to say, Todd was not happy. He ultimately filed a defamation complaint against Channel 11 for reporting a false story and failing to investigate the truth or falsity of the story.

A normal citizen has greater protection from a defamation lawsuit than does a "public figure." A person can only say so many nasty things about another person before it becomes defamation. However, if you are a public figure, essentially the defamatory comments must not only be false, but they must be uttered with "actual malice."

Channel 11 asked to have the case dismissed contending that Todd was a "limited purpose public figure." A "limited purpose public figure" is a person who has been drawn into or has injected himself or herself into a public controversy. If an individual is a "limited purpose public figure," then they must prove the defamatory statements were made with "actual malice." The trial court determined that Todd was a "limited purpose public figure" and found that Channel 11 was simply reporting and did not make any statements with "actual malice." Todd appealed.

The Court of Appeals ruled that actual malice can only be shown when the defaming party had knowledge that the statement was false or was reported with reckless disregard for whether the statement was false. Todd also took issue with Channel 11's report because they failed to use the word "allegedly" in describing his potential responsibility. The Court of Appeals ruled that failure to use the word "allegedly" is insufficient and that proof of failure to investigate the accuracy of a statement, without more, cannot establish the reckless disregard for the truth necessary to prove actual malice.

As an aside, I can feel Todd's pain. While acting as District Attorney, a local TV station mixed my name up with that of an alleged murderer. It was reported that I committed a heinous murder in our fair county. A correction was later made. However, I am told there were some bullies from high school who failed to appear for our class reunion that year. Maybe there is some justice after all.

Erdman v. SF Broadcasting of Green Bay, Inc., 229 Wis.2d 156.