The Minnesota Supreme Court ordered a new defamation trial Wednesday for the man who sued two media outlets for reporting he was arrested and identified as a suspect in the fatal shooting of a Cold Spring police officer in 2012.
In a 5-2 decision, the court determined that fair and accurate reporting privilege provided by the First Amendment protects information provided by law enforcement at news conferences. But the court’s ruling set aside a jury verdict in favor of KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times and sent the case back for a new trial regarding five of the 11 statements that Ryan Larson claimed were defamatory.
“It’s important the media be held accountable for defaming a private citizen,” Larson’s lawyer Stephen Fiebiger said. “We’re certainly glad to have the new trial ordered and the ability to have a new day in court.”
Steven Wells, who represents KARE 11 and the newspaper, said the media outlets were gratified that the court found that fair report privilege applies to law enforcement — something the high court had not yet done.
“But they’re disappointed the Supreme Court decided to overturn a jury verdict in our favor,” Wells said. “It’s very difficult to understand what the court has done.”
Wells said his clients are weighing their options, which include asking the state Supreme Court to rehear the issue of a new trial.
Larson, then 34, was arrested shortly after the November 2012 slaying of police officer Thomas Decker, who was shot twice while responding to Larson’s apartment on a welfare check. Larson was arrested that night, but he was later released and never charged in Decker’s death. Eric J. Thomes, a 31-year-old man later considered the investigation’s main focus, killed himself in early 2013 just as authorities were trying to find him for a formal interview.
Larson went on to sue several media outlets that reported on his arrest and named him as a suspect. While television stations WCCO and KSTP settled, KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times went to trial in 2016. A jury found that while eight of the statements made by the station and newspaper defamed Larson, the reporting was accurate and no damages were awarded.
Among the statements: “Police say that man — identified as 34-year-old Ryan Larson — ambushed officer Decker and shot him twice — killing him.” “Investigators say 34-year-old Ryan Larson ambushed the officer, shooting him twice. Larson is in custody.”
After the trial, Judge Susan Burke granted Larson’s request for a new trial. She said the jury should have been allowed to consider a “defamation-by-implication” theory that the statements implied he killed Decker.
When the news outlets appealed Burke’s ruling, the Court of Appeals canceled the new trial. The Court of Appeals also reversed Burke, saying reporting privilege protected the news media in using the statements.
But while the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the fair reporting privilege applies, it can be breached in certain circumstances and that the jury in Larson’s case wasn’t adequately advised on those possibilities regarding five of the 11 statements. Therefore he is entitled to a new trial.
“The district court’s instructions did not make this distinction clear and therefore were misleading as to a crucial inquiry in this case,” the court said, adding that the error was “potentially prejudicial to Larson” and he is entitled to a new trial to determine whether privilege was defeated in five statements.
The key framing of the question for the jury, the court said, is: “Did the reported statements produce the same effect on the mind of the listener or the reader as the oral and written statements of the law enforcement officers at the press conference or in the news release?”
Instead, the jury was instructed to determine not the fairness and accuracy of the statements but the underlying question of whether Larson killed Decker, the ruling said.
Justice Margaret Chutich wrote for the majority that included Justices Natalie Hudson, David Lillehaug, Anne McKeig and Paul Thissen.
But Justice G. Barry Anderson dissented, joined by Justice Lorie Gildea. He argued that privilege was defeated in the first five statements “as a matter of law” because the statements were true, and that the ruling “tips that balance too far here in favor of the press, effectively immunizing the press from liability for falsely accusing a private citizen of murder.”
“Because of the court’s broad rule, any government official or employee will be able to call a press conference or disseminate a news release that defames private individuals and the press, with impunity, will be able to widely circulate that defamation.”
In making Larson’s case, Fiebiger had argued the defendants “invented their own version of the facts that fit with the story they wanted to broadcast and publish about Larson.”
Both news outlets deny those allegations and say any harm that came to Larson was due to law enforcement arresting him.
Mark Anfinson, the First Amendment lawyer who initially represented the media outlets, said the court’s finding of privilege was significant and important. “But unfortunately, the court really gets off in the weeds and makes its application far more complicated than it needs to be,” he said.
The ruling will chill some kinds of reporting and likely be expensive for the media to defend themselves in court, Anfinson said.
According to a filing in the case, after Larson’s arrest was made public, he dropped out of school, left his job and moved to escape the “embarrassment and humiliation."