Ohio Supreme Court Narrowly Revives Defamation Lawsuit Filed By Chief of Police

March 31, 2008

The Ohio Supreme Court recently found that Columbus Police Chief James Jackson was entitled to a trial on the merits of his defamation lawsuit against the City of Columbus and a former safety director. The Court’s ruling reverses both the trial court and Franklin County Court of Appeals decisions that the City and the safety director were entitled to dismissal of Jackson’s lawsuit as a matter of law.

More than 10 years ago, the former Columbus Safety Director Thomas W. Rice prepared a report for former Mayor Greg Lashutka regarding the way that Jackson handled officers involved in a prostitution investigation. The report included claims by a convicted criminal that Jackson had impregnated a juvenile prostitute and was paying her child support. The report conceded that the information was “suspect” and the source was a “liar” and a “scam artist.”

The Court's 4-3 decision found that including the allegation of Jackson’s alleged misconduct in a public report was enough to raise a question about whether the city acted with “actual malice,” a critical element that must be proven in a defamation lawsuit filed by a public official. Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who wrote the majority opinion, found that the evidence could support a determination that Rice acted with actual malice and had a “high degree of awareness of [the statement’s] probable falsity.” The majority Decision is surprising because Rice specifically qualified in his report that the information regarding Jackson’s misconduct was unreliable.

Justice O’Donnell, writing the dissent, criticized the Decision, stating that, “the majority fails to appropriately consider that Rice presented the statement only as an unproven allegation and that he did not act unreasonably by incorporating it into the report ordered by the mayor.” Under the majority analysis, a person who publishes an unreliable statement about a public figure cannot avoid a trial on a claim of defamation, even if that person specifically states that the statement is suspect, unreliable and the words of a “scam artist.”

The dissenting opinion noted the well-established case law that distinguishes constitutional actual malice from common law malice. As Justice O’Donnell noted, “the focus of the inquiry is not the defendant’s attitude toward the plaintiff, but rather on the defendant’s attitude toward the truth or falsity of the statement alleged to be defamatory.” Under this analysis, there could be no finding of actual malice because the Defendant Rice was very careful to qualify his report and include clear statements that the allegations about Chief Jackson might be false.

The dissent also expressed concern that the majority decision could chill future speech and the “free flow of information to the people concerning public officials, their servants.” The dissent continues, “Few personal attributes are more germane to fitness for office than dishonesty, malfeasance, or improper motivation, even though these characteristics may also affect the official’s private character.”

Justices O’Connor, Lanzinger and Cupp concurred with Justice Pfeifer’s majority decision. Justices Moyer and Lundberg Stratton joined Justice O’Donnell’s dissent. The Decision is titled Jackson v. Columbus, Slip Opinion No. 2008-Ohio-1041, and can be found on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website: http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/docs/pdf/0/2008/2008-Ohio-1041.pdf.

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