Ohio top court to hear arguments in TV news defamation case

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in an appeal involving a defamation lawsuit that alleged a television station falsely labeled three siblings as "robbers."

A Columbus family sued WBNS-TV in 2016 after the station reported on a hover board robbery at Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark in Columbus and included a surveillance photo showing the faces of three unnamed individuals. Police had released the photo, asking for the public's help in identifying the three individuals they said may have been involved.

The television's website story was headlined, "Robbers Put Gun to Child's Head and Steal Hoverboard," and underneath was the photo of the three individuals.

Nanita Williams saw the broadcast story and realized it was her three children in the photo, the family's lawsuit said. She took them to a Columbus police station where they told investigators they had gone to the park that day to deliver Thanksgiving dinner to someone who worked there.

Columbus police then issued a second news release saying the three individuals in the surveillance photo weren't the robbery suspects and asked news outlets to stop using the photo. WBNS stopped broadcasting stories about the robbery and removed the photo from its website, but kept the story about the incident online.

Williams and the siblings' father, Willie Anderson, sued the station, alleging defamation. The lawsuit said one sibling was taunted by classmates after the WBNS story ran and another was taunted and threatened. The lawsuit said the third sibling fled the city and lost job opportunities.

WBNS argued, among other things, that the family couldn't prove the station acted negligently when it relied on police information and that the station didn't defame the siblings, who weren't named.

A Franklin County judge in October 2016 agreed with WBNS' arguments and dismissed the case, but Ohio's 10th District Court of Appeals reversed that decision in 2018, ruling the lawsuit could proceed. The appellate court found that WBNS changed the police news release by indicating people in the photo were robbers, not suspects, and that the family has a "sufficient factual basis" to survive a motion to dismiss the case.

A number of news industry organizations, including the Associated Press Media Editors, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of WBNS.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office, which has been granted five minutes to argue Wednesday in support of WBNS, has said that law enforcement agencies have an interest in protecting their rights to solicit tips and other information regarding criminal investigations through news outlets.

The oral arguments will be heard during a special court session along with other cases at Geneva High School in northeast Ohio's Ashtabula County.