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Teacher’s lawsuit over news reports of criminal charge can proceed

A teacher who was charged with touching a 12-year-old female student in the breast area over her clothing could bring a defamation action against a television station and a newspaper that reported the teacher had been charged with “having sex” with the girl, the Court of Appeals has ruled.

The criminal sexual conduct charge against the teacher was ultimately dismissed.

The teacher sued KSTP-TV and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, arguing that their reporting falsely implied that the criminal charges involved genital contact and other conduct far beyond the scope of the complaint.

The District Court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that the “gist” of the news reports was true because “having sex” with a girl below the age of 13 can include the touching of intimate body parts.

But the Court of Appeals reversed.

“The gist or sting of the statement gave recipients the impression that [the plaintiff] had engaged in sexual activity far beyond the scope of the actual allegations,” wrote Judge Terri Stoneburner. “The defendants’ statements are not substantially true.”

The 10-page unpublished decision, Partch v. Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., et al. is Minnesota Lawyer No. CA-256-01.

St. Paul attorney Patrick Tierney, who represented the teacher, said that the decision makes it clear that the term “having sex” means far more to most people than just touching someone on the outside of the clothing.

“I think the defendants tried to broaden the protections they already have, but the court didn’t do it,” said Tierney.

Minneapolis attorney John P. Borger, who represented the Star Tribune, and St. Paul attorney Paul R. Hannah, who represented KSTP-TV, declined to comment on the decision.

Choice of words

On July 6, 1998, plaintiff Robin Partch, a Redwood Falls schoolteacher, was charged with criminal sexual conduct in the second degree for allegedly touching a 12-year-old student in the breast area over her clothing while she and other students were working on computers in a technology class.

The Redwood Gazette published an article reporting that the plaintiff had been charged with criminal sexual conduct in the second degree, but did not describe the conduct that formed the basis of the charge. (The charges against the plaintiff were ultimately dismissed.)

On the day the Redwood Gazette printed its article, defendant KTSP-TV received an anonymous call on its tipline. The caller read portions of the article about the charge against the plaintiff and a copy of it was anonymously faxed to the station. KSTP-TV’s daytime assignment editor made five telephone calls to Redwood Falls the next morning seeking more information and a copy of the criminal complaint. KSTP-TV was unable to obtain the complaint or any additional information about the charge. KSTP-TV later broadcast a report indicating the plaintiff was charged with “having sex with a girl at a school in Redwood Falls.”

After hearing the KSTP-TV newscast, defendant Star Tribune Co. assigned a reporter to research the matter. The reporter spoke with the Redwood County Attorney, but the county attorney did not elaborate on the plaintiff’s charges or his alleged conduct, nor did the county attorney provide the reporter with a copy of the criminal complaint. The reporter then spoke with someone at the Redwood Gazette, who faxed her a copy of the article published the day before. The reporter did not investigate further and drafted an article indicating that the plaintiff had been charged with “having sexual relations” with one of his female students. A Star Tribune copy editor later shortened the phrase to “having sex.” On July 29, the newspaper published an article in its metro section titled, “Teacher accused of having sex with student.”

After the Star Tribune published the article, an assistant Redwood County attorney notified the newspaper that its statement was inaccurate. The newspaper printed a retraction, using terminology suggested by the assistant county attorney and the plaintiff’s counsel. The retraction clarified that the plaintiff “was charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct for having sexual contact with the student.”

The plaintiff brought a defamation action against the defendants.

The District Court judge granted summary judgment in the defendants’ favor, concluding that the gist of the statements was true. The plaintiff appealed.

The gist of the story

The issue before the Court of Appeals was whether the defendants’ statements were substantially true.

Citing the 1996 Minnesota Court of Appeals decision in Jadwin v. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co., Stoneburner explained that a statement is substantially true “if its gist or sting is true, that is, if it produces the same effect on the mind of the recipient which the precise truth would have produced.”

The plaintiff argued that the “gist” or “sting” of the defendants’ statements that he was accused of “having sex” with a student was not a substantially true portrayal of touching a student on the outside of her clothing in the breast area.

After applying the substantial-truth test, the District Court judge concluded that the gist of the statements is true because having sex with a girl under the age of 13 can include the touching of intimate body parts. The District Court judge further observed that “[t]he sting of the statements is that a public middle-school teacher abused his position by allegedly having sexual contact with a female student in a classroom during the school day.”

The District Court judge reasoned that the actual truth and the statement “having sex” were separate points on a spectrum, and therefore the distinction between the plaintiff’s alleged conduct and the defendants’ statements is “one of degree and not kind.”

In arguing that the District Court judge correctly ruled the statement “having sex with a girl” is a substantially accurate representation of the plaintiff’s alleged conduct, the defendants cited dictionaries and caselaw that appear to construe the term “sex” broadly.

Stoneburner pointed out, however, that other sources conflict with the defendants’ expansive reading of the term.

The Court of Appeals determined that the chief question under Jadwin is whether the statement produced the same effect on the mind of the recipient as would the precise truth.

“Here, KSTP viewers and Star Tribune readers were told [the plaintiff] was accused of ‘having sex’ with a 12-year-old girl in his class. ‘Having sex’ implies traditional sexual intercourse or at least some genital contact far beyond a touch on the outside of clothing in the breast area,” wrote Stoneburner. “Here, [the plaintiff’s] alleged conduct did not involve intercourse or genital contact as the report implied.”

In concluding that under Jadwin, the defendants’ statements are not substantially true, the Court of Appeals noted that the defendants’ statement gave the impression that the plaintiff had engaged in sexual activity far beyond the scope of the actual allegations.

“[The plaintiff’s] alleged conduct was sufficiently egregious to prompt the serious charge against him and to cause community concern, but such conduct should be accurately characterized in news reports,” Stoneburner observed.

— Michelle Lore

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