ST. PAUL -- The state Supreme Court established a strict standard Thursday for what media accounts of public meetings are protected by the First Amendment.
Even as it defined a boundary for the ''fair and accurate'' reporting privilege, however, the court refused to lower a threshold plaintiffs must meet to prove they were defamed.
Justices sent a case back to trial court, giving a police officer another chance to pursue his defamation case against the Crookston Daily Times.
Sgt. Detective Gerardo Moreno is seeking damages against the newspaper, which quoted a man at a city council meeting who accused the officer of selling drugs from the trunk of his squad car. The 1998 front-page story appeared nearly two weeks after the meeting and focused largely on a police investigation of the rumor.
The Supreme Court did not rule on the alleged defamation itself. Instead it focused on the law that allows news organizations to claim ''privilege'' to report comments made during official proceedings as long as they are reported fairly, accurately and without malice.
''Even though a fair and accurate report of a city council meeting is privileged, that privilege can be defeated if additional contextual material, not part of the proceeding, is added that conveys a defamatory impression or comments on the veracity or integrity of any party,'' Justice Paul H. Anderson wrote for the majority.
The district court dismissed the lawsuit, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals reinstated it, saying the officer could sue based on ''common law malice.''
The threshold for proving common law malice -- personal ill will or spite -- is lower than actual malice, which is reckless disregard for the truth. The Supreme Court ruled that ''common law malice'' does not trump the reporting privilege.
Paul Hannah, the Times' attorney, said the court's refusal to adopt the lower malice standard is heartening.
''As long as that report is fair and accurate you can't be sued by someone upset by what you say,'' Hannah said.
Attorneys for Moreno also claimed victory because the case is still alive. Marge Bodas also said the court's interpretation extends important protection to people who become the subject of news accounts stemming from official proceedings.
''(Courts are) not automatically going to extend that fair and accurate reporting privilege into anything that's thrown into an article that goes beyond what was actually said or done at a city council meeting,'' Bodas said.
Hannah said reporters can live with that standard because they rely on other protections for news gathered outside of public meetings.
Moreno's attorneys argued that the newspaper shared fault with citizen Dennis McDaniel, who blurted the allegation at the end of a council meeting, because the paper defamed him by making the false statement a second time, through publication. The issue was not on the City Council agenda, which prevented Moreno from defending himself there.
Moreno is seeking damages of more than $50,000. The 21-year veteran will get another chance to argue his case in Polk County District Court.
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