A local television reporter is not a public figure and she can sue her former station and a boss under a more lenient legal standard that previously was reserved for less well-known individuals, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The high court ruled that Holly Wayment, a former KTVX reporter, is not a public figure in a 26-page ruling involving Wayment's lawsuit against the station, Clear Channel Broadcasting and two male managers, Jon Fischer and Patrick Benedict.
Wayment alleged the men made defamatory remarks about her.
The Supreme Court said part of Wayment's case must go back to trial court for further proceedings.
But Randy Dryer, attorney for KTVX, said a larger issue is the "dramatically reduced" legal standard that Wayment and now many others will have to meet in order to claim they have been defamed.
The trial court had decided Wayment was a public figure, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision.
The definition of a "public figure" is a significant matter in defamation and libel lawsuits. Public figures who claim they have been defamed must show that comments were made with actual malice, while private individuals only need to show comments were made with negligence.
"I think it will have a deleterious effect on journalists," Dryer said. "It's just another erosion of constitutional protections."
Dryer predicted this will enormously enlarge the number of people who can sue reporters and news organizations using a far more lenient standard than before. Dryer said the situation is ironic because the new ruling gives fewer protections to journalists, yet it is a journalist whose lawsuit produced this "unfavorable" ruling.
"My view is, this decision is reflective of a nationwide trend we're seeing where the courts are increasingly hostile or unsympathetic to journalists," Dryer said.
Wayment's lawyer, Don Davis of Austin, Texas, was not available when contacted at his office late Friday.
Wayment, a health reporter, sued after leaving KTVX after managers questioned her relationship with the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She claimed they told other workers she had taken money from the institute and was "in bed" with it.Comment on this story
A district court dismissed her lawsuit, stating that because she was a television reporter she was a public figure. However, the Supreme Court reversed that decision.
The high court upheld the district court's dismissal of Wayment's allegations against Fischer. But because there is a dispute about Benedict, the Supreme Court said the case should go back to district court to determine whether he did or did not make such remarks.Dryer said Benedict denies making any such comments.