A panel of federal judges last month upheld a lower court decision to dismiss a defamation lawsuit against the Utica Observer-Dispatch and several members of its newsroom.
The suit was brought by Vladimir Jeanty, who was arrested on drug charges in 2009 and subsequently convicted of fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and seventh-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance. He served 2 1/2 years in prison.
That conviction, however, was vacated in 2015 after it was found that evidence related to the charges had not been turned over for trial. A motion to dismiss the conviction was filed by Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara, who commented on the matter for a story written Aug. 12, 2015, by former O-D reporter Micaela Parker.
In his complaint, Jeanty argued that Parker published the allegedly defamatory statements by the prosecutor concerning the circumstances leading to his arrest and his efforts to get his conviction overturned despite knowing them to be false. The suit also named two of the newspaper's editors as defendants for their role in the story's publication.
Parker's article quotes McNamara referring to Jeanty as a "difficult individual," outlining the evidence against him, and disagreeing with Jeanty's opinion on the exculpatory nature of the evidence that led to his conviction being dismissed.
A federal district court dismissed Jeanty's defamation claims in 2017 after concluding that the newspaper report of those statements was protected by the fair reporting privilege.
Section 74 of New York's Civil Rights law says that "[a] civil action cannot be maintained against any person, firm orcorporation, for the publication of a fair and true report of any judicial proceeding, legislative proceeding, or other official proceeding."
In dismissing the case, the lower court noted that "Parker was not required to fact-check the D.A.'s official statements, only to provide a fair and true report of them."
A panel of three judges with the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in a written decision issued on January 20, 2023.
Michael Grygiel, the attorney representing Gannett and its employees, praised the decision to protect reporters from defamation changes for accurately reporting statements from public officials.
"The Second Circuit's decision affirms the District Court's well-reasoned analysis and application of New York's fair report privilege, which immunizes the press from liability exposure based on the accurate publication of information obtained from official government records and sources," Grygiel said. "That privilege does not require a reporter to present a defamation plaintiff's version of events in order to qualify for the absolute protection it affords."
The Observer-Dispatch was owned by GateHouse Media at the time the suit was filed. GateHouse and Gannett merged in 2019. An editor with the merged company also praised the appellate court's decision.
"The Observer-Dispatch is pleased with the appellate court recognizing the newspaper had the right to publish information from law enforcement about this case under New York's fair report privilege," said USA TODAY Network New York State Editor Michael Kilian. "This privilege is vital for news reporters seeking to cover public safety news in our communities."
Contact reporter Sean Lahman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seanlahman.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Dismissal of defamation suit against Utica newspaper upheld