Court taking up implied defamation question

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SANDPOINT — The Idaho Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a case later this month that could expose journalists and media organizations to liability for publishing uncontested facts addressing subjects of legitimate public concern.

“This is a permissive appeal that presents a case of first impression regarding whether the tort of defamation by implication exists in Idaho,” the high court said in a docket notice for the Friday, Sept. 21 hearing in Boise.

The case dates back to 2016, when USA Today and two television stations serving viewers in Idaho and Oregon reported on the results of a nationwide investigation into statewide school systems that granted licenses to teachers whose credentials had been revoked in another state. The reporting included references to James Verity, a schoolteacher in Oregon who lost his teaching license after engaging in a sexual relationship with a high school student whom he coached in 2005.

After officials in Oregon declined to reinstate his credentials, Verity went on to obtain his license in Idaho and secured teaching jobs in the Caldwell and Valivue school districts. Verity and his wife, Sarahna, filed a lawsuit alleging defamation by implication.

Although it was undisputed that the facts presented in the news stories were entirely accurate, counsel for the Veritys argued that the reporting gave rise to false implications that he was a danger to female students, deceived Idaho officials by not disclosing his past conduct and that he committed a crime by having sex with a student.

Verity was not accused of having sex with the 18-year-old student, although Oregon officials concluded he had a relationship with the student that included other forms of sexual contact. Moreover, Verity was not charged criminally as a result of his admitted misconduct, according to court documents.

An Ada County district judge denied media organizations’ motion for summary judgment and ruled that despite the actual truth of the statements, a jury should consider whether the media stories impliedly defamed the Veritys, which prompted the media to appeal.

Amici, a coalition of nearly 30 national and Idaho news organizations, which includes the Associated Press, CNN, Idaho Press Club, Buzzfeed and the New York Times, filed a briefing in the case urging the supreme court not to affirm the lower court’s ruling because doing so would inhibit the dissemination of truthful information about matters of public concern that cannot be squared with the law of defamation or the First Amendment, according to court documents.

“In such circumstances, if the reporter and newspaper can nevertheless be held liable, not for what they actually published, but for what some readers inferred from it, the ability of the press to gather and report about matters of public concern necessarily suffers,” Lee Levine, Alia Smith and Charles Brown, counsel for Amici, said in its 35-page brief.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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