Defamation Case Stemming From MN Officer’s Murder Dismissed
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday in favor of two media organizations that covered the 2012 killing of a police officer, saying news stories that named a man as a suspect were protected because they accurately summarized official law enforcement statements.
The case stems from the Nov. 29, 2012, killing of Cold Spring police Officer Tom Decker. Shortly after Decker's death, authorities announced that Ryan Larson was arrested — but Larson was released days later without being charged and was later cleared.
Larson sued Twin Cities television station KARE-TV and the St. Cloud Times for defamation, arguing they went too far in reporting that authorities suspected him of ambushing and killing the officer. The media outlets argued their reporting was protected because it was based on information provided by law enforcement. The Associated Press was among the news organizations that filed briefs in support of the defendants.
The appeals court agreed with the media outlets, ruling that the "fair-report privilege" protects news reports that accurately summarize or fairly abridge information relayed by law enforcement during official news conferences or news releases.
"We're extremely pleased that the Court of Appeals has recognized that the public's interest is best served by having public affairs known to all," said Lisa Schwarz, news director at the St. Cloud Times, adding: "There's no common sense in law enforcement issuing news releases or calling press conferences to inform the public through the press if the press cannot report those official statements fearlessly."
John Remes, president and general manager of KARE-TV, said: "The public has a right to know what law enforcement is saying. It is vital to keep our community informed and safe."
Larson's attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, said the appeals court got it wrong. Fiebiger plans to ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.
A jury sided with the media organizations in 2016, but a district judge set that verdict aside and ordered a new trial, saying the news outlets' statements weren't protected because they went beyond the mere fact that Larson was arrested.
Monday's ruling reinstates the jury's verdict. The appeals court concluded that even though law enforcement did not say that Larson ambushed Decker, they did say that Decker was shot and ambushed and that Larson was arrested in connection with the shooting. A jail log also indicated Larson was held on an anticipated murder charge.
The appeals court found that if statements made at a news conference, a news release and a jail log are taken together, a reasonable jury may conclude that the media reports were substantially accurate reports of official statements.
"It's a good win, mainly because the judge's prior ruling was so wrong," said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center. "The reporting in this case is typical of reporting that's done every day, and there's a privilege in reporting what the police say."
Decker, a 31-year-old father of four, was fatally shot on Nov. 29, 2012, in Cold Spring, a small community about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Minneapolis. He was going to check on Larson, who was reported to be possibly suicidal when he was shot in what authorities described as an ambush.
Authorities announced the next day that Larson had been arrested, but said they were still investigating. He was released without being charged.
In January 2013, a man who'd been questioned in Decker's death, Eric Thomes, killed himself as authorities were trying to re-interview him. They later said they would have had enough evidence to arrest Thomes. Larson was cleared in August 2013, and authorities officially closed the case last month.
Larson, who moved away from Cold Spring, reached undisclosed settlements in earlier defamation claims against KSTP-TV, KSTC-TV and WCCO television and radio.