Articles Posted in Public Concern

Did an Associated Press reporter commit a foul against an NBA referee earlier this year by defaming him on Twitter during a league game? On March 14, 2011, National Basketball Association official Bill Spooner filed a federal defamation case against Associated Press sports beat reporter Jon Krawczynski for a brief item that Krawczynski wrote on his Twitter account that suggested Spooner was officiating a game dishonestly. During an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets on January 24, 2011, Krawczynski tweeted (twote?) that Spooner told Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis after an allegedly bad call against a Minnesota player that Rambis would “get it back,” and that Spooner went on to compensate for the incorrect call with a “make-up” call against Houston.

Spooner says that although he had a brief verbal exchange with Rambis about the foul call, he said nothing to the coach about giving anything back to the Timberwolves. His lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, says Krawczynski defamed him by telling Krawczynski’s Twitter followers in effect that Spooner had engaged in a “form of game fixing.” Spooner discusses in his complaint that the NBA was recently caught up in a controversy involving former ref Tim Donaghy, who pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007 after being accused of betting on games that he officiated.

The NBA itself discouraged the lawsuit, although it doesn’t believe Spooner actually cheated either. According to a league spokesman, “We investigated the content of the tweet when it appeared, found it to be without substance, and informedBball.jpg Mr. Spooner that we considered the matter closed. We subsequently advised Mr. Spooner’s lawyer that we did not think suing a journalist over an incorrect tweet would be productive.”

In Virginia, as in other states, potentially defamatory statements made in official government proceedings receive protection from defamation claims. But some such statements get the benefit of absolute privilege, which means that even a knowingly false statement can’t be the basis of liability, while a larger category of statements receive only a qualified privilege. A qualified privilege gives the plaintiff an opportunity to show that the statement was made with malice — and to recover damages if he or she can prove that it was.

In Small v. Nogiec, the Supreme Court of Virginia examined remarks made by a county assistant administrator during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors of Isle of Wight County, and concluded that only a qualified privilege applies to the statements since they were not made in a legislative context. The court therefore unanimously upheld a jury verdict for the plaintiff.

In March 2007, Alan Nogiec retired from his job as the county’s director of Parks and Recreation. A few months before he retired, the county’s museum was damaged by heavy rains. In May 2007, Assistant County Administrator Patrick Small gave a report at a board meeting about efforts being undertaken to repair the museum. He said that IsleOfWight.jpgbefore the storm, information about the likelihood of flooding “had been suppressed” by the parks director and that this “borders on negligence in my opinion.”

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