ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — The Albuquerque Journal did not defame an Albuquerque Police reserve officer it described as a “wannabe cop,” the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled.
The Journal in 2009 published a series of articles about the Albuquerque Police Department’s reserve officer program, and particularly about David C. Young, a civilian employee who also worked as a volunteer reserve officer.
The Journal reported that Young had billed overtime hours for time working as a reserve officer, which was against departmental policy.
In the articles, “Wannabe Cops Tarnish All of APD Badges,” and “APD Warned Civilian Not to Play Cop,” among others, the Journal chronicled its findings and the subsequent changes to, and then suspension of the APD reserve officer program.
Young sued the Journal in 2012 alleging defamation and invasion of privacy, saying the articles cast him in a false light and that the phrase “wannabe cop” was misleading and hurt his reputation.
The Bernalillo County District Court dismissed the claim with prejudice in 2014, finding that as a reserve officer Young was a public official and could not sue for defamation except under narrow circumstances, which his case did not meet.
Young appealed, and last week Appeals Court Judge J. Miles Hanisee affirmed dismissal, as Young did not show that the statements about him were made with “actual malice,” and that as a reserve officer he was a public official for the purposes of the case.
“A private plaintiff need only prove that the defendant acted negligently in publishing a defamatory statement, whereas a public official must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice,” Hanisee wrote, then proceeded to cite New York Times v Sullivan: “This heavier burden on ‘public official’ plaintiffs reflects ‘a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.’”
Calling Young a “wannabe cop” was opinion, not an assertion of fact, and could not be construed as either false light or malicious defamation.
Albuquerque’s reserve officer program has been extensively revamped since 2009. Young is no longer associated with the program.