Court upholds dismissal of officer's 'Ticketgate' libel claim

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 7/14/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a Cranston Police officer's libel lawsuit stemming from a television news story that aired weeks after the so-called "Ticketgate" incident in late 2013. The high court's July

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Court upholds dismissal of officer's 'Ticketgate' libel claim

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The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a Cranston Police officer’s libel lawsuit stemming from a television news story that aired weeks after the so-called “Ticketgate” incident in late 2013.

The high court’s July 8 opinion in Russell Henry v. Media General Operations, Inc., et al., authored by Associate Justice William P. Robinson III, finds that Russell Henry, then a lieutenant and now a captain with the Cranston Police Department, qualifies as a public official in the context of a defamation claim, which requires proof of “actual malice.”

With that standard in mind, Robinson writes, the court “would be hard-pressed to identify even a scintilla of evidence that would be the basis for a rational factfinder to conclude by clear and convincing evidence that the media defendants acted with actual malice in airing the story at issue.”

Robinson was joined by Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell and justices Erin Lynch Prata and Melissa Long in the majority decision. Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg did not participate in the decision.

At the heart of the complaint was a report from the late Jim Taricani, an investigative reporter with WJAR, that appeared on the station’s evening news broadcast and website in early January 2014.

The report named Russell Henry, then a lieutenant and now a captain with Cranston Police, as a participant in a November 2013 parking ticket blitz in wards 1 and 3. The issuance of those tickets followed a City Council committee vote against a new contract with the police union, IBPO Local 301.

In the report, Taricani said that according to his sources, Henry had used his personal cell phone to order the ticketing at the behest of his cousin, former police captain Stephen Antonucci. But Taricani’s report was pulled from additional broadcasts and subsequently retracted based on further information relayed from another WJAR employee.

Henry, whose libel suit was filed in June 2014, argued in his high court appeal that Superior Court Associate Justice Richard Licht erred when he dismissed the case in 2018 based on a finding of a lack of “actual malice” on the part of the defendants. Henry further asserted that “genuine issues of material fact” had slanted the prior proceedings against him.

In addition to Taricani and Media General Operations Inc., which owned WJAR at the time, other defendants named in the case included Chris Lanni, who was WJAR’s news director; Cranston Police Officer Peter Leclerc; former Cranston officer Ronald Jacob; and retired Cranston Police Capt. Karen Guilbeault.

Jacob and Leclerc, who was an initially anonymous tipster, were Taricani’s sources for the story, according to testimony during the legal proceedings. Henry’s complaint asserted that Guilbeault was Jacob’s source of information, but Guilbeault denied that was the case. Leclerc’s information was based on overheard conversations, according to testimony.

For his part, Taricani – who passed away in 2019 – testified that he believed the information from his sources to be true at the time the report was aired and published. He also testified that Col. Marco Palombo, then chief of the Cranston department, had told him Henry was not involved in the ticketing blitz.

Taricani additionally acknowledged that while he attempted to contact Henry prior to the report airing, he might, in retrospect, have tried harder to reach the officer.

The court’s opinion reads: “It is true that, when the media operate under the protection of the actual malice standard (as is the case when the subject of a broadcast is a public official or a public figure), mistakes will inevitably be made and individual reputations will sometimes be sullied. That is regrettable, but inevitable – and hopefully rare.”

It later adds: “Indeed, there is nothing in the record of this case to show that Mr. Taricani’s reliance on his two sources and his reasons for finding them to be credible were in any way reckless or that he had any serious doubts as to the veracity of what they were relating to him … It remains an established principle that purposeful avoidance of the truth can support a finding of actual malice, but that clearly was not what happened in this case.”

The opinion also rebuffs Henry’s argument specific to Palombo’s comments to Taricani.

“It cannot plausibly be deemed to have been reckless for the media defendants to have aired Mr. Taricani’s story simply because Chief Palombo had denied Captain Henry’s involvement … To hold otherwise with respect to unsubstantiated denials would unsettle the bedrock on which investigative journalism and freedom of the press are founded,” Robinson writes.

Aside from upholding the Superior Court’s ruling and the finding that Henry, as a police officer, is a public official as it relates to a defamation claim, the Supreme Court’s opinion rejects Henry’s claims related to emotional distress and the placing of his name in a “false light.”

Those claims must be rejected, Robinson writes, because “one may not breathe life into an otherwise doomed defamation claim by re-baptizing it as a different cause of action.”

The opinion goes on to state the justices found a similar lack of evidence that Leclerc, Jacob or Guilbeault acted with malice toward Henry.

The ruling at one point continues: “This case is a classic example of the venerable maxim: ‘Dura lex sed lex’ (It is a harsh law, but it is the law). While we are confident that we have correctly applied the constitutionally derived principles relative to defamation actions brought by public officials, we are not in the least insensitive to the unfortunate effect on the lives and reputations of real human beings that the application of those principles can sometimes have. Such is the price that some individuals must pay as a result of the daunting burden which public officials must bear when they seek to prevail in a defamation action. Our sympathy for public officials who allege that they are victims of defamation is unfeigned, but our role is to apply the constitutionally derived principles that are operative in this domain.”

The “Ticketgate” scandal led to major changes in the Cranston Police Department. Palombo was placed on leave – and, soon after, retired – as Rhode Island State Police were asked to temporarily lead the department and investigate the matter. Antonucci was later found to be responsible for the ticketing blitz and fired, while Henry was cleared.

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