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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. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  2. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

  3. I will agree with that as soon as law schools stop lying to prospective students about salaries and employment opportunities in the legal profession. There is no defense to the fraudulent numbers first year salaries they post to mislead people into going to law school.

  4. The sad thing is that no fish were thrown overboard The "greenhorn" who had never fished before those 5 days was interrogated for over 4 hours by 5 officers until his statement was illicited, "I don't want to go to prison....." The truth is that these fish were measured frozen off shore and thawed on shore. The FWC (state) officer did not know fish shrink, so the only reason that these fish could be bigger was a swap. There is no difference between a 19 1/2 fish or 19 3/4 fish, short fish is short fish, the ticket was written. In addition the FWC officer testified at trial, he does not measure fish in accordance with federal law. There was a document prepared by the FWC expert that said yes, fish shrink and if these had been measured correctly they averaged over 20 inches (offshore frozen). This was a smoke and mirror prosecution.

  5. I love this, Dave! Many congrats to you! We've come a long way from studying for the bar together! :)

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