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Gray Television Wins Privacy Victory in Mississippi

By Jacquelyn Schell

A recent Mississippi decision provides clarity on the limits of Mississippi's youth court confidentiality statutes and helpfully applied First Amendment protections for reporting on matters of public concern. Doe v. Cmty. Newspaper Holding, Inc., No. 18-CV-038(C), 2018 BL 425671, 2018 Media L. Rep. 429 (Miss. Cir. Nov. 06, 2018).

Juvenile Sues for Reporting on Arrest of Unnamed High School Students

Plaintiff filed suit against WTOK-TV, The Meridian Star, and several reporters in Meridian, Mississippi, based on their reporting on the arrest of five juvenile students for sexual assault on a high school classmate. Although the reports did not identify the students by name or photograph, Doe claimed he was identifiable because the reports noted that one accused student was a baseball player.

Doe asserted claims for invasion of privacy, negligence, and intentional/negligent infliction of emotional distress. He alleged that Mississippi's youth court statutes prohibited defendants from publishing information about the arrest and events underlying the records of the youth court.

Court Rejects Privacy Theory and Affirms Protections for Reporting on Matters of Public Concern

As an initial matter, the court applied the Mississippi standard for adjudicating motions to dismiss, namely, that "the motion should not be granted unless it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff will be [un]able to prove any set of facts in support of [his] claim."

Turning to the substance of the motions, the Court rejected plaintiff's theories and dismissed all three claims against the news outlets. First, the Court made clear that the youth court statute prohibits disclosure of records, not discussion of underlying events, under governing Mississippi Supreme Court precedent. See 2018 Media L. Rep. 429 (citing In re R.J.M.B., 133 So. 3d 335 (Miss. 2013)). In explaining that the news reports fell outside the prohibitions of the youth court statute, the Court found it significant that the reports quoted the school superintendent and the chief deputy, who spoke publicly about the arrests.

Next, the Court affirmed the First Amendment's protection for reporting on matters of public concern. See id. (citing Smith v. Daily Mail Publ'g Co., 443 U.S. 97, 104 (1979), and Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989)). The Court found that the defendants "lawfully obtained the information reported within the disputed stories" from the superintendent and chief deputy, and that because "Plaintiff's claims arise out of the truthful publication about matters of public concern," his claims "are barred by under the First Amendment."

Seth D. Berlin and Jacquelyn N. Schell, Ballard Spahr LLP, Washington D.C. and New York, and William W. Simmons, Glover, Young, Hammack, Walton & Simmons, PLLC, Meridian, MS, represented Defendants Grey Television Group, Inc. d/b/a WTOK-TV and Candace Barnette.

Leonard D. Van Slyke, Jr. and Karen Howell, Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes, PLLC, Jackson, MS, represented Defendants The Meridian Star, Whitney Downard, and Cheryl Owens.

O. Stephen Montagnet III and Zachary M. Bonner, McCraney Montagnet Quin & Noble, PLLC, Ridgeland, MS, represented Plaintiffs John Doe and Jane Doe.

J. Richard Barry of Barry, Thaggard, May & Bailey LLP appeared on behalf of Defendant, Superintendent Randy Hodges, but was not involved in the motion to dismiss briefing or hearing.

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