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Justices establish 'public interest privilege' in defamation suit

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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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, (http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pdf/05020702fsj.pdf ), 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."
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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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