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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, February 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

School Bus Driver Loses Suit Over Hooking Rap

MILWAUKEE (CN) - A Wisconsin news station did not invade the privacy of a school bus driver by reporting on her old misdemeanor prostitution conviction, a judge ruled.

Melissa Dumas had claimed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court that Durham School Services fired her after WTMJ Channel 4 broadcast footage of her and posted it online.

In his report, reporter Robert Koebel said he was highlighting "concern" for the hiring policies of Milwaukee Public Schools.

The footage shows him confront an unprepared Dumas in a parking lot about her misdemeanor conviction for a 2005 prostitution arrest. He also said that Dumas had her driver's license suspended in 2001, the same year that she was arrested for marijuana possession, and that she was cited in an accident for inattentive driving.

Characterizing the interview as an "ambush," Dumas said she was licensed and qualified to work as a bus driver, and that her now-ex-employer required disclosure only of felony convictions.

Judge Timothy Witkowiak recently granted Koebel and WTMJ owner Journal Communications summary judgment. He ordered Dumas to pay $300 in costs.

In a brief to the court, Koebel and Journal Communications had said they have "explicit statutory protection for reporting matters of public record, which makes it unnecessary to reach any constitutional issues in this case."

The complaint Dumas filed "ignores Wisconsin's statutory protection authorizing anyone 'to communicate any information available to the public as a matter of public record' without fear of liability for invasion of privacy," their brief stated.

Koebel and Journal Communications also said that First Amendment privilege entitles them to report information obtained from public records.

They called it "wholly disingenuous" for Dumas to argue that her arrest records were not public.

Likewise her claim that the reporter "wrongfully obtained" her name is "a desperate argument," according to the brief.

"There is nothing 'wrongful', much less unlawful, about broadcasting a news story based on truthful information that Milwaukee Public Schools voluntarily disclosed," they added.

In her opposition brief, Dumas had argued that "the defendants have erroneously applied the privileges afforded to journalists in matters involving public figures in an attempt to escape liability as a matter of law."

Dumas had sued for invasion of privacy, interference with contractual relationship, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

"The torts pled in the complaint are the very torts which reporter and editors may be subject to liability," according to the brief written by her attorney Richard Schulz.

He added that revealing the 8-year-old criminal record "served no public interest or reasonable purpose in achieving the stated goals of the alleged investigation."

"Rather, it was intended to unnecessarily sensationalize an otherwise un-newsworthy story and create embarrassment and emotional distress for [Dumas] all in an attempt to encourage a larger audience."

Dumas said the defendants gave "a blanket constitutional defense," but that neither the First nor 14th Amendments bar her claims.

Koebel and Journal Communications disagreed.

"Dumas quite obviously does not think her criminal history should disqualify her from driving a school bus, at best a debatable point, but that does not mean the question is not of public concern or that raising it reflects bad motives or unjustifiable ends," according to their brief, written by Godfrey & Kahn attorney Robert Dreps.

"Indeed, both the First Amendment and state public policy prohibit a jury trial on that issue, no matter what the station's motive or what label the plaintiff places on her claim," they added.

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