DETROIT (CN) – A federal judge rejected a former Michigan official’s defamation claims against a TV station, finding it did not act with actual malice when an editing error led to an inaccuracy that made it seem like a lawyer said the official had broken the law.
In July 2016, Odis Jones, former CEO of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority, sued Detroit’s WXYZ-TV for defamation after the Scripps Media-owned station aired a three-part investigative series earlier that year outlining several questionable severance payments to employees who, according to court records, had accused Jones of misconduct.
In an aired interview, employment lawyer Deborah Gordon seemed to say that Jones had “violated the law” and that the matter should be referred to state prosecutors. The lawyer actually said that “if” Jones violated the law, but an editing error omitted or made “if” inaudible.
Jones and MVP Capital Ventures, which Jones had a stake in, also alleged interference with advantageous business relations, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
However, the lawsuit took a hit Friday when U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman threw out their defamation claims. He found that the station did not act with actual malice, the standard that a public official must meet to win a libel claim.
The ruling is a victory for the press in an era where President Donald Trump has questioned the nation’s libel laws and repeatedly stated, often without evidence, that the media has published “fake news” stories about his administration.
“Now more than ever, we depend upon the ‘free press,’” Judge Leitman wrote, noting that Scripps was serving a vital watchdog function when it aired the stories on more than $500,000 in severance payments about three years ago. After Jones resigned in early 2016, he received a $250,000 severance package, according to the court order.
The “misquote was the result of an accidental editing error,” and there was no evidence that the station was attempting to manipulate the lawyer’s statements to make it seem like Jones had broken the law, Leitman wrote in the 36-page order.
MVP alleged the station defamed it by showing the company’s logo and website shortly after the interview with the misquote, but the judge rejected that argument.
“MVP’s claims fail because the Gordon misquote did not concern MVP and did not give rise to any actionable false implications about MVP. Accordingly, plaintiffs have no viable claims against Scripps,” the judge wrote in the order granting WXYZ-TV’s motion for summary judgment.
Scripps attorney James Stewart did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
He told the Detroit News in an email on Friday that Leitman’s “thoughtful decision has important implications beyond this dispute.”
“His decision reaffirms the core values that the First Amendment and a robust media serve in our society,” Stewart wrote.
Jones’ attorney Brad Lambert said Tuesday he is considering an appeal.
“We stand by the basic fundamental pleadings that we’ve made in this case,” the Bloomfield Hills attorney said in a brief phone interview.