Justices establish 'public interest privilege' in defamation suit

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
A Vigo County Schools superintendent is protected from liability for defamation relating to comments he made in 2001 about an unidentified gunman who'd fired a shotgun at him, the Indiana Supreme Court has ruled.

In a unanimous decision late Wednesday, the court followed what other states have done and adopted a public interest privilege for Indiana designed to protect certain communications for private citizens. The privilege ruling puts an end to the six-year defamation dispute involving comments Superintendent Daniel T. Tanoos made about his own attempted murder and the man he believed had committed the acts - Paul Joseph "Jay" Kelley III.

Kelley had displayed animosity toward Tanoos prior to the shooting, and when someone shot at him and a bullet grazed the superintendent's head from outside his house, police identified Kelley as a suspect. At the time, he was supervisor of safety and security at a juvenile residential treatment facility in the district. Rumors circulated, and Tanoos began working with police and at one point told Kelley's supervisor, James Sinclair, that Kelley was the likely perpetrator.

While accused by Tanoos and investigated by police, Kelley was never charged with any crime and ultimately sued Tanoos for defamation.

This opinion in Kelley v. Tanoos, ( ), No. 84S01-0605-CV-195, affirms Vigo Superior Judge David Bolk's denial of Kelley's motion for summary judgment and the grant of summary judgment in Tanoos' favor. The Court of Appeals in 2005 reversed and remanded, holding that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding Kelley's defamation claim and that Tanoos' statements were not covered by a qualified privilege. The Indiana Supreme Court heard arguments in September.

Justices declined to abolish the presumption of damages in a per se defamation action and also declined to hold a common law privilege existed because Tanoos was trying to apprehend the shooter and Sinclair appeared to be "repairing strained relations" between the juvenile facility and school corporation. However, the court found that the statements were made in an effort to assist law enforcement officials in investigating the crime and that protects them.

"Accordingly, it is well established that in Indiana, communications made to law enforcement to report criminal activity are qualified privilege," Justice Frank Sullivan wrote. "This so-called public interest privilege is intended to encourage private individuals to assist law enforcement with investigating and apprehending criminals."

In the ruling, Justice Sullivan cites the Restatement (Second) of Torts Section 598 (1978), which he writes articulates a broader scope of protection than adopted in Indiana. It states: "The privilege ... affords protection to a private citizen who publishes defamatory matter to a third person even though he is not a law enforcement officer, under circumstances which, if true, would give the recipient a privilege to act for purposes of preventing a crime or of apprehending a criminal or fugitive from justice."

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. This state's high court has spoken, the fair question is answered. Years ago the Seventh Circuit footnoted the following in the context of court access: "[2] Dr. Bowman's report specifically stated that Brown "firmly believes he is obligated as a Christian to put obedience to God's laws above human laws." Dr. Bowman further noted that Brown expressed "devaluing attitudes towards pharmacological or psycho-therapeutic mental health treatment" and that he made "sarcastic remarks devaluing authority of all types, especially mental health authority and the abortion industry." 668 F.3d 437 (2012) SUCH acid testing of statist orthodoxy is just and meet in Indiana. SUCH INQUISITIONS have been green lighted. Christians and conservatives beware.

  2. It was all that kept us from tyranny. So sad that so few among the elite cared enough to guard the sacred trust. Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law. Sophocles No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we ask him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor. Theodore Roosevelt That was the ideal ... here is the Hoosier reality: The King can do no wrong. Legal maxim From the Latin 'Rex non potest peccare'. When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal. Richard Nixon

  3. So men who think they are girls at heart can use the lady's potty? Usually the longer line is for the women's loo, so, the ladies may be the ones to experience temporary gender dysphoria, who knows? Is it ok to joke about his or is that hate? I may need a brainwash too, hey! I may just object to my own comment, later, if I get myself properly "oriented"

  4. Heritage, what Heritage? The New Age is dawning .... an experiment in disordered liberty and social fragmentation is upon us .... "Carmel City Council approved a human rights ordinance with a 4-3 vote Monday night after hearing about two hours of divided public testimony. The ordinance bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, among other traits. Council members Rick Sharp, Carol Schleif, Sue Finkam and Ron Carter voted in favor of it. The three council members opposing it—Luci Snyder, Kevin Rider and Eric Seidensticker—all said they were against any form of discrimination, but had issues with the wording and possible unintended consequences of the proposal." Kardashian is the new Black.

  5. Can anyone please tell me if anyone is appealing the law that certain sex offenders can't be on school property. How is somebody supposed to watch their children's sports games or graduations, this law needs revised such as sex offenders that are on school property must have another non-offender adult with them at all times while on school property. That they must go to the event and then leave directly afterwards. This is only going to hurt the children of the offenders and the father/ son mother/ daughter vice versa relationship. Please email me and let me know if there is a group that is appealing this for reasons other than voting and religion. Thank you.