A Connecticut news station’s reports about a man’s arrest for following a woman inside a grocery store and in the parking lot were substantially true and, thus, insulated the news outlet from defamation, a federal appeals court has ruled.

News 12 Connecticut reported that on Nov. 5, 2017, James Lawrence faced charges for “stalking” because he followed a woman around in a grocery store and then out to her car. News 12 also reported that Lawrence had engaged in similar behavior in the past. 

Lawrence sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, claiming that News 12 Connecticut falsely stated that he had been arrested for “stalking.” Lawrence contended that the reporting was defamatory because he was arrested for breach of the peace, not stalking. 

A federal district court ruled in favor of Altice United States, the parent entity of News 12 Connecticut. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed in its Jan. 7, 2021, ruling in Lawrence v. Altice United States

News 12 Connecticut did incorrectly state that Lawrence was arrested for stalking.  However, the 2ndCircuit, like the district court, found that the reporting was substantially true. Under the substantial-truth doctrine, a statement is not defamatory if the gist of the statement is true.

Here, the 2nd Circuit reasoned that News 12 Connecticut accurately reported the gist of the type of conduct that Lawrence allegedly engaged in — a history of following women around.

David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let The Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019). 

“In short, the main charge or gist of News 12’s reports was that Lawrence’s behavior in the November 5th incident was consistent with his history of similar behavior, thus fairly summarizing what the police stated in the arrest warrant affidavit,” the panel wrote.  

The appeals court also noted that there is a common meaning of the term “stalking” that may be different from the specific legal definition of the term. The appeals court wrote that “News 12’s use of the term ‘stalking’ would not have affected average readers’ and viewers’ perceptions of Lawrence because the gist of its reporting established that Lawrence’s behavior met the common definition of stalking.”

The 2nd Circuit also affirmed the dismissal of Lawrence’s emotional-distress claim on First Amendment grounds.

The panel cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s funeral-protest decision Snyder v. Phelps (2011) for the principle that an emotional-distress claim cannot survive First Amendment scrutiny if it is based on speech about a matter of public concern or importance.

“Lawrence’s claim for emotional distress is therefore barred by the First Amendment,” the court wrote. 

David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of Let The Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools (Beacon Press, 2011), and of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012). Hudson is also the author of a 12-part lecture series, Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).