The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled that the “fair-report privilege” protects the media against defamation claims for news reports that accurately summarize official press conferences held by law enforcement or law enforcement agencies’ official press releases. The fair report privilege is a broad privilege afforded to the press to publish defamatory statements so long as the report relies on official public documents or statements by public officials and the report fairly and accurately uses those sources.

On November 29, 2012 the Cold Spring, Minnesota police department came to perform a welfare check on Mr. Ryan Larson at his family’s request. On the way, Officer Tom Decker was shot and killed in the vicinity of Larson’s residence. Police arrested Larson in connection with the murder. On November 30, 2012, law enforcement officials held a joint press conference about the incident, during which officials made statements about the arrest and answered questions. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety issued a news release the same day stating that Larson had been arrested and booked on murder charges.

The story was covered by local media, including Defendants KARE 11 News and the St. Cloud Times, which reported on the incident and the police press conference in various broadcasts and articles published in the days following the arrest. Eventually, however, Larson was released after investigators determined that there was insufficient evidence against him and he was cleared as a suspect in August 2013.

Larson sued KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times for defamation over 11 statements made in the reporting on the arrest that indicated that he was accused of murder and that police believed or stated that he had shot Officer Decker. At trial the jury found in favor of defendants, holding that although each statement was defamatory, referred to Larson, and was published, none of the statements were false. Larson successfully moved for a new trial and defendants appealed.

On appeal, Larson argued that the fair-report privilege did not apply to news reports about law enforcement statements at the police press conference and in the press release. The Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered judgment in favor of defendants. The Court relied principally on the Minnesota Supreme Court case of Moreno v. Crookston Times Printing Co., which held that the fair report privilege applies to “an accurate and complete report or a fair abridgement of events that are part of the regular business of a city council meeting.”

The Court relied on two public policy principles for the extension of Moreno to police press conferences and press releases. It explained that, because the meeting was public, a fair and accurate report would simply relay information to the reader that she would have seen or heard were she at the meeting. Further, it held that there was an “obvious public interest in having public affairs made known to all.”

Accordingly, the Court analogized the police press statements to the public statements made at a city council meeting and further held that there was an “obvious public interest” in information relayed to the public by law enforcement officials. Applying Moreno, the Court held that the fair report privilege extended to fair and accurate reporting of statements made by law enforcement officials at official press conferences or in official press releases based on its conclusion that “[w]e can discern no meaningful distinction between citizen statements … made at a city council meeting and police statements about a recent crime at an official press conference.”

The case is Larson v. Gannett Co., Inc., No. A17-1068, 2018 WL 2090538 (Minn. Ct. App. May 7, 2018).