RTDNA is offering its support to Waterman Broadcasting’s WBBH-TV in Fort Myers, Fla., which is being sued for defamation, along with two of its anchors and one of its reporters, by State Attorney Stephen Russell after an investigative report that aired in November left Russell, according to his lawsuit, with “hurt feelings.”
The WBBH story was based on a portion of a U.S. Department of Justice report which the station said pointed to Russell’s strict prosecutorial standards as being responsible for a high number of unsolved murders in Fort Myers. The city is part of the five southern Florida counties for which Russell is the chief prosecutor. That portion of the DOJ report said:
There is a perception among some stakeholders that county prosecutors will only authorize arrest warrants for those cases that have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, versus the lesser standard of probable cause. This perception contributes to increasing numbers of cold cases and lack of confidence in government authority/police.
WBBH reporter David Hodges’ story reviewed the number of unsolved homicides in the area, featured part of an interview with a local minister who appeared to agree with the DOJ report, and, notably, featured several parts of an interview with Russell himself, in which he defended his office’s murder conviction rate and prosecutorial standards.
“As the result of the false and defamatory statements made by [WBBH], Russell suffered and will continue to suffer humiliation, mental anguish, hurt feelings, and injury to his reputation,” according to Russell’s suit, which also names Hodges, and WBBH anchors Peter Bush and Kellie Burns-Garvey, as defendants. Russell is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
Waterman Broadcasting, which would not comment for this story, says in its legal filing that “any and all statements made by the Defendants are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and also protected by the Florida Constitution.” The station’s filing also asserts that the defendants’ statements in the story “constituted the substantial truth” and that Russell had not claimed the defendants acted “with actual malice,” a key legal standard to prove defamation of a public official.
“RTDNA offers legal assistance to journalists across the country by making available our expert Washington, D.C.-based First Amendment counsel to consult with, and provide advice to, local new organizations’ and journalists’ attorneys,” said Dan Shelley, Incoming Executive Director, who spearheads RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force. The task force was formed to defend against attacks on the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.
“Any time there is an attempt to chill or obstruct the pursuit of responsible journalism, we are willing to stand with and assist the journalists who are targeted,” Shelley said.
This week, Russell told the Fort Myers News-Press that he will not seek re-election in 2018. According to the newspaper, Russell told its editorial board that “he agreed ‘by and large’ with many of the findings in the [DOJ] report” and acknowledged, "’There certainly has been distrust that has been built up in the community since I have been here.’”