MEMPHIS (CN) - A TV station is off the hook for libel charges thanks to the Tennessee fair report privilege, a federal judge ruled.
A district court found that WHBQ had no reason to doubt a police press release, though a woman accused of forgery was later cleared of wrongdoing.
Pamela Hill and her son Dylan bought clothes from a Memphis Old Navy story in February 2013 and Pamela paid for them with a personal check, according to the Order Granting Summary Judgment.
Four days later, the Memphis Police Department released a bulletin with photos of the Hills, claiming they had forged a check using an Olive Branch, Miss. woman's information.
WHBQ reported the story the next day, referring to the Hills as "two thieves" and broadcasting their photos, according to the court's order.
Pamela Hill heard about the news report, became upset and went to the police department to explain her side of the story, claiming that Old Navy made a mistake because the number on her receipt was one digit away from her bank account number. The Memphis Police closed the file even though Old Navy claimed its system was foolproof.
Other news outlets retracted the story but WHBQ did not, according to the ruling. The Hills, including Pamela's husband Adam, sued the TV station and Old Navy in August, alleging negligence, defamation and libel, false light invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.
U.S. District Judge John Fowlkes Jr. dismissed the case on May 20, finding that the Tennessee fair report privilege, which protects reporting of official proceedings such as police communications, applies in this case.
"The court finds that WHBQ's report of the incident at Old Navy is a fair and accurate summary of the police press release upon which it was based," Judge Fowlkes wrote. "While the court acknowledges that the use of the words 'thieves' and 'steal' instead of 'suspects' may cause the public to view Pamela and Dylan Hill in a more negative light, this does not skew the contents of the MPD press release."
The Hills did in fact argue that WHBQ's broadcast was unfair and inaccurate because it contained the words "thieves" and "steal," claiming that they imply "a conclusion of guilt."
Fowlkes disagreed, because forgery is a type of theft under Tennessee law and the report was "a straightforward restatement of the press release."
"In the state of Tennessee, individuals who forge checks are prosecuted for theft of property," he wrote. "Thus, the news report is not an inaccurate description based on the MPD press release's characterizations."
WHBQ did not act with actual malice, Fowlkes added.