Reporters and editors are not usually experts on libel and that's why they've always welcomed the safe havens of public meetings.
Personal accusations have always raised red flags for journalists, but the standard has traditionally been that a comment is fair game if it was said at a public meeting.
The theory is that a city council or county board meeting is open to any citizen who walks in off the street in addition to whatever media outlets choose to cover the meeting and publish or air the information.
Now that safe haven for journalists and other citizens who want to write or talk about their government is at risk in Minnesota. The state's Supreme Court this week heard arguments on a Crookston defamation case in which a detective sued the Crookston Daily Times and a citizen who claimed the law officer had sold drugs from the trunk of his squad car.
A regional Drug Enforcement Administration investigator looked into the matter and cleared him.
The newspaper's attorney, Paul Hannah, said the story on the accusations was fair and accurate and should be covered by the media's First Amendment privilege to report on public meetings. Hannah warned, and this newspaper would agree, that weakening the privilege protection would "put an incredible chill not only on the media but other citizens" who want to discuss comments made at public meetings.
"What if people in Crookston want to talk about the state of the police department?" he asked.
The justices on Tuesday questioned whether that privilege applied to parts of the story that went beyond the comments made at the council meeting.
The detective's attorney disputed that the comments were part of of a public meeting because the topic was not listed on an agenda. That seems like an odd argument to us. Since when are the listed agenda items the only topics that are public at a public meeting?
If the detective's suit is upheld the media won't be the only losers. Any citizen who wants to write or discuss comments made at a public meeting could be accused of making defamatory comments.
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