A Court of Appeals decision may end up giving courts much-needed guidance for media law cases in Wisconsin, according to an attorney involved with the case.
In an opinion released Tuesday, the appeals panel upheld a lower court decision that found a series of stories WTMJ did in 2006 about former wedding video producer Angela Terry did not rise to the level of defamation of character.
Jana and Chad Uebele went to the TV station several months after their wedding to complain that Terry had not yet provided them with a video of their wedding, which they had paid her $1,000 to do.
WTMJ then broadcast a series of “I-Team” reports about Terry, the allegations against her and the possibility that she broke the law.
No criminal charges ever were filed against Terry, who wound completing the Uebele’s and other clients’ videos after a consumer protection specialist got involved.
Terry sued the couple and the TV station, claiming they damaged her reputation with the stories and a series of ads that capitalized on a confrontation Terry had with former station reporter John Mercure when he and a cameraman went to Terry’s house.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Dennis Moroney dismissed the claim against the Uebeles in 2010, and the appellate court upheld that decision in 2011. Circuit Judge Francis Wasielewski followed suit with the complaint against WTMJ last year.
In her appeal, Terry’s attorney, Gary Thompson, argued that Mercure’s stories were inaccurate and defamatory. The appellate court, in its opinion, said the facts in the stories were substantially true, however, and actual facts are a defense against libel, slander and defamation.
“A majority of the statements Terry complains about use some variation of the terms ‘rob,’ ‘ripped off,’ ‘cheat,’ ‘victim’ or ‘scam,’” stated the opinion, which was penned by Judge Joan Kessler. “The media defendants maintain that these statements are opinions based in fact, and are therefore not actionable.
“We agree that all of these terms, in the context in which they were used, convey statements of opinion that are not defamatory.”
Bob Dreps, an attorney with Godfrey & Kahn SC who represented WTMJ and its owner, Journal Communications Inc., said the case may end up providing some legal precedent in a state that has very little.
Dreps said the opinion clarified a distinction between facts and opinion, and also opinions stated with facts to back it up.
“If I report that you ripped me off,” Dreps said, “and I don’t provide any factual basis to support that, it implies that whatever a reasonable jury believes it implies. If I say it in the context [in which] you use it there, then that’s not actionable unless the facts unless it’s based are false.”
Thompson said he and Terry have not yet decided whether to petition the state Supreme Court to take up the case. There are a few issues, however, he said he would like the see the justices address, including whether Wasieleski made an error in not letting the case go to a jury.
“If a reporter is saying you’re robbing these people … you plead it and identify the statements and so on,” Thompson said, “the trial courts are supposed to look at that.”