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It’s official: No defamation claims based on fair reporting of written statements

By Laura R. McCarthy
Butler Snow LLP

A federal district judge in Mississippi recently reaffirmed that the media's publication of official written statements from the Office of the State Attorney General or other public law enforcement officials about court proceedings cannot be the basis for a defamation claim in Mississippi. See King v. State et al., No. 3:14-cv-157-CWR-FKB (S.D. Miss. Jan. 28, 2015).

In April 2012, Patrick King was arrested for selling bootleg CDs and DVDs at his place of business, “The Ice House,” in Copiah County.  The arrest was part of the Mississippi Attorney General’s initiative “Operation Knock Out Knock-Offs,” a multi-phase project funded in part by a federal grant and aimed at creating public awareness about intellectual property theft and the sale of counterfeit goods.  Following King’s arrest and the separate arrest of another Hazlehurst man, the Attorney General issued a press release which various media outlets reported on, either quoting directly from the press release or airing clips of the press conference itself.  

Later King pled guilty to six state felony counts of the illegal sale or distribution of recordings without the display of required information.   The media reported on King’s guilty plea and his sentence of 18 years in prison with 3 years suspended, relying on the official arrest report and another press release from the Attorney General.

After an unsuccessful attempt to overturn his conviction, King and his wife sued the State of Mississippi, Copiah County, the City of Hazlehurst, the investigation agency that assisted with the arrest, four media outlets, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in Federal district court in Jackson, seeking $61 million in damages.  In a 90-page complaint, the Kings alleged a variety of claims, including defamation and civil rights violations.  The defendants promptly filed separate motions to dismiss the case.  The media defendants pointed out that, among other problems, the 1-year statute of limitations for defamation claims had already passed.

The Federal court dismissed the suit against all defendants in a well-reasoned and detailed opinion written by United States District Judge Carlton Reeves.  First and foremost, Judge Reeves explained that the Kings had ignored the basic statutory requirements for any defamation claim based upon news reports published by the media in Mississippi.  Plaintiffs had not sent retraction letters to any of the media defendants to notify them of King’s alleged defamation claim.  And the case was clearly brought too late.  Mississippi has a 1-year statute of limitations for defamation claims, and the Kings conceded that they brought the case over two years after the broadcasts and publications at issue.

Even had the Kings complied with the retraction statute and timely filed their suit, Judge Reeves ruled that the defamation claim was still non-actionable since their claim was based on official communications provided by the Attorney General or to the Court as part of Mr. King's guilty plea and sentencing hearing and the fair and balanced publication of this type of information is protected by the official statement privilege in Mississippi.   

Laura R. McCarthy is part of the media defense team with Butler Snow LLP, which is counsel for the Mississippi Press Association.  

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