The Denver Post and 9News did not engage in libel when they published certain inaccurate details about the trial of a man who had a 2016 shootout with Lakewood police, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday.
"The truth is a reporter’s best defense against a libel suit, and the news organizations in this case had the truth on their side," said Jeffrey A. Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, after the court's decision. "Journalists are permitted to freely report from public documents if they cite the source and fairly and accurately portray the information from the documents."
A jury in Jefferson County found Eric St. George guilty on nine counts of attempted murder, assault and unlawful sexual contact, among other charges. According to court documents, an exotic dancer whom St. George had hired to dance at his home walked out after he got physical with her. St. George followed her with a shotgun and engaged in a shootout with responding police. He received a 32-year prison sentence.
Following his 2018 conviction, The Post, 9News and the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office wrote about the outcome. St. George told the organizations that what they published was false and libelous. He filed suit in January 2019.
The Court of Appeals on Wednesday dismissed St. George’s defamation claim against the news outlets because the statute of limitations expired. The three-member panel also agreed with a Denver District Court judge’s ruling that the fair report privilege provided a defense to the outlets when they reported inaccurate details from a government document — in this case, a press release from the district attorney’s office.
“St. George initially argues that the media defendants’ news articles were not a fair and substantially accurate summary of the publicly held trial,” wrote retired Judge Dennis A. Graham, who sat on the panel at the chief justice’s assignment. “The media defendants correctly respond that their articles are reproductions of the district attorney’s press release, not the trial, and, since the media defendants’ news articles are substantially true, they argue, the articles are protected by the fair report doctrine.”
In going through each of St. George’s problems with the articles, the appeals judges rejected his clarifications on the amount of time the jury deliberated, the distinction between an “exotic dancer” and an “escort,” and whom he aimed the gun toward.
“The court's finding that the two news organizations' reports are absolutely privileged, as ‘fair reports’ of the District Attorney's press release,” said Steven D. Zansberg, attorney for The Post and 9News, “is consistent with numerous precedents (outside of Colorado) that have applied that common law privilege to official public statements of government agencies.”
The appeals panel also found St. George could not hold the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office liable for libel under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.
The case is St. George v. Denver Post et al.