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BlogsPublications | November 28, 2016
2 minute read

COA finds that fair reporting privilege does not cover alleged libel that is not part of a public record

In Bedford v. Witte, Nos. 327372 and 327373, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that the fair reporting privilege, which precludes the recovery of damages in certain defamation actions, does not provide an exception for cases involving actual malice or self-reporting; however, the Court held, the privilege does not extend to libel that is not part of a public record. 

This action arose from the defendants – a law firm acting on behalf of its clients – filing a complaint in federal court alleging that the plaintiffs acted unethically during previous collection litigation.  After filing the complaint, one of the defendant firm’s attorneys participated in a television interview.  During the interview, he stated that “we can say with certainty” that the plaintiffs committed the unethical behavior asserted in the complaint.  The law firm subsequently posted a copy of the federal complaint and the news interview on the firm’s website. 

Because of the defendants’ actions, the plaintiffs filed defamation complaints alleging that the defendants made false and malicious statements about the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit and the interview, and that they furthered their defamation by posting the complaint and the interview on their firm’s website.  After various pleadings, the trial court ruled that the absolute privilege for judicial proceedings applied to the filing of the federal complaint and thus precluded liability on that matter.  The court further concluded that the fair reporting privilege protected the defendants from liability related to the interview and the postings on the website.

On appeal, the plaintiffs asserted that the fair reporting privilege should not apply to the defendants’ posting the complaint and the interview online because the defendants posted with actual malice.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument.  Relying on precedent cases, the Court concluded that the only qualification to the fair reporting privilege is that the report is fair and true.  Applying this standard to the complaint posted on the website, the Court concluded that the posting of an exact copy of the complaint was clearly a “fair and true” report with respect to the proceedings.  Thus, the court affirmed the trial court’s ruling with respect to this issue.  Conversely, the Court of Appeals held that trial court erred in concluding that the privilege also protected the posting of the television interview.  According to the Court, the statements made in the television interview were not a mere summary of the defendant’s allegations in the complaint because they included words that altered the effect the literal truth would have on the information’s recipients.  Thus, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings on that issue.