Steubenville Teacher, Football Coach Wins Defamation Appeal
The Seventh District Court of Appeals has ruled that a trial court erred by dismissing a defamation claim filed by a Steubenville teacher and football coach based on newspaper and television station accounts following a Diocese of Steubenville press release about alleged physical abuse of a student.
After allegations of abuse were made, the Diocese of Steubenville issued a press release on January 3, 2011, stating: “the Diocese determined ‘there is a semblance of truth to the allegation.’ And that pursuant to the Diocese’s Decree on Child Protection Steubenville Catholic Central High School teacher and football coach Gregg Bahen was placed on paid leave.”
The next day the Steubenville Herald Star reported on the press release and at the end of the article, the paper published a quote from a spokeswoman from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests: “We urge anyone who has been harmed by Gregg M. Bahen, to report it to law enforcement, not the diocese. The police are the proper officials to be investigating crimes against kids.”
In September 2011, Bahen filed a complaint contending that “one could not read the article without concluding that he physically abused a student, and this was especially damaging to his profession.” He noted that he was later cleared of the false allegation. A month later Bahen amended his complaint and added that not only was there libel and negligent infliction of emotional distress, there was also intentional infliction of emotion distress.
The “Newspaper Defendants” asked for and were granted a motion to dismiss based on the “neutral reportage privilege,” which is a defense against libel and defamation suits where a defendant can claim they were not implying the statement was true but reporting in a neutral manner information from a reliable source on a matter of public interests.
Bahen said the trial court erred in applying the neutral reportage privilege, and the Seventh District Court of Appeals agreed. Judge Mary DeGenaro wrote: “The trial court erred in applying the neutral reportage privilege because the Ohio Supreme Court has declined to adopt the doctrine, and moreover, by dismissing Bahen’s Amended Complaint on that basis alone.”
“The Ohio Supreme Court in Young v. The Morning Journal … expressly stated: ‘This court has never recognized the “neutral reportage” doctrine and we decline to do so at this time. Accordingly, we will not uphold the grant of summary judgment based on the “neutral reportage” doctrine.’”
Judge DeGenaro also said while several Ohio appellate courts have recognized the neutral reportage privilege, “this court has never recognized or considered the privilege.”
“As this court has rejected the applicability of the privilege to defamation claims, the trial court erred by dismissing Bahen’s Amended Complaint based upon the neutral reportage privilege,” Judge DeGenaro said. “Importantly, the trial court’s judgment entry demonstrates that the privilege was the sole basis for the dismissal.”
Judges Gene Donofrio and Cheryl L. Waite concurred in the May 24 opinion that reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Bahen v. Diocese of Steubenville, 2013-Ohio-2168
Civil Appeal From: Jefferson County Common Pleas Court
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed and Remanded
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: May 24, 2013
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