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TV Station’s Win in Defamation Case Upheld

(CN) - A teacher who was accused of having pornographic images on his laptop at school was not defamed by a local TV station that covered the story, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled.

Georgio Sabino III was an art teacher at Cleveland Heights High School in 2011. His students had access to his personal laptop computer and another one belonging to the school.

Two students reported to a teacher that they found inappropriate content on Sabino's personal laptop. One said she opened a file marked "teen," thinking it was related to her class.

Instead, she allegedly reported, the file contained a video of a teenage boy and girl having sex. The other student said she saw links to pornography on the computer, according to court records.

The next day, police and school officials seized Sabino's computers and removed him from his class, which he found "humiliating" and "extremely public," court records show.

WOIO Channel 19 posted an article on its website that day, stating that Sabino was under investigation. His name was later redacted from the article.

In February 2012, Ed Gallek reported on the story on Channel 19 News, according to the Ohio Court of Appeals ruling.

"No charges yet, so we're not naming the teacher," he said on the air. "I spoke with his attorney, everyone's still waiting for findings. An investigation into unexpected sex ed. Ed Gallek, 19 Action News."

While Gallek spoke, the following phrases appeared on the bottom of the screen: "19 Investigation," then "Teacher Under Fire," then "Child Porn Found on Laptop." Gallek later stated he did not write or approve the words that appeared on screen.

Sabino sued Gallek and WOIO in 2013 for defamation and false light invasion of privacy.

Amanda Duffy, Sabino's girlfriend, testified that he had a hard time finding a job after the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school system placed him on leave.

Sabino testified that he and his girlfriend had watched pornography on his laptop, but he denied having child porn on his computer. He also stated that he was cleared of any wrongdoing related to the allegations.

The trial court granted a directed verdict to the TV station because extrinsic information was needed to connect Sabino to the news story.

The lower court also found that the statement "Child Porn Found on Computer" was not "a strictly false statement."

Sabino appealed, but the Eighth District Ohio Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on Feb. 11, in a decision written by Judge Larry Jones Sr. for a three-judge panel.

"Just in the lead-in to the story, there are qualifiers stating that there was an investigation into an art teacher suspected of having child pornography, and students may have seen child pornography on the teacher's computer," Jones wrote. (Emphasis in original.)

While Jones added that he did not approve of the story's "sensationalistic tone," the judge stated that WOIO also did not defame Sabino with the words "Child Porn Found on Computer" on the screen.

"The alleged defamatory banner was just one of many visual elements to the broadcast," he wrote. "We do not find that it dominated the story to the point where it deserves significantly more weight when balanced against the rest of the broadcast."

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