Man named in Cold Spring police killing takes media to trial

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota man who claims he was defamed after the 2012 killing of a police officer is taking his lawsuit against two news outlets to trial.

Ryan Larson, 38, alleges that Gannett Co. and two of its news outlets, KARE-TV and the St. Cloud Times, damaged his reputation when they published statements implicating him in the killing of Cold Spring officer Tom Decker. Larson had been arrested on suspicion of murder but was released without charges.

The news organizations have argued their reporting is protected because it was based on public information provided by law enforcement.

The trial, which starts Monday, centers on the "fair report privilege," which protects news outlets against defamation claims when their reporting is a substantially accurate account of a government record or proceeding — even if that government record turns out to be wrong.

"This is a big deal in terms of how the courts will interpret the boundaries of the privilege and how strongly its protection should be applied," said Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis attorney who helped defend the news outlets in the early stages but is no longer directly involved. "There's certainly a lot of anxiety and uncertainty."

Decker, a 31-year-old father of four, was fatally shot Nov. 29, 2012, behind a bar in downtown Cold Spring, a small community about 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis. He was going to check on Larson, who lived above the bar and was reported to be possibly suicidal, when he was shot in what authorities described as an ambush.

Authorities announced the next day that Larson had been arrested on suspicion of murder, but said they were still investigating. He was released without being charged.

In January, a man who'd been questioned in Decker's death, Eric Thomes, killed himself as authorities were trying to re-interview him. They later said they would have had enough evidence to arrest him.

In his lawsuit, Larson contends that specific statements broadcast on KARE-TV and published in the St. Cloud Times were defamatory, some recklessly so, including one that said "Police say" Larson ambushed Decker, shot and killed him.

Larson's attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, wrote in court documents that authorities did not say that Larson ambushed or killed Decker.

"Defendants' reporters did more than report facts from law enforcement," Fiebiger wrote. "They invented their own version of the facts that fit with the story they wanted to broadcast and publish about Larson."

Attorneys for the news outlets say Larson can't show there was actual malice or negligence and that the statements in question are substantially accurate because the "gist or sting is true." They also say the journalists based their statements on the totality of information gathered from a news conference, a news release, jail log and other documents.

"Here, any injury to Plaintiff was caused by his arrest on murder charges and law enforcement's decision to publicly announce that fact ... to the entire world at a televised press conference and in a press release," the defense attorneys wrote. "None of the allegedly defamatory statements could have added significantly to Plaintiff's harm."

Hennepin County Judge Susan Burke allowed the case to proceed earlier this year, saying some, but not all, statements made by law enforcement, such as Larson's arrest, fell under the fair report privilege. However, she ruled, even if all of the statements were privileged, there's still a question of whether the reporting was fair and accurate.

Larson, who moved away from Cold Spring, is seeking more than $50,000 in damages. He reached undisclosed settlements in earlier defamation claims against KSTP-TV, KSTC-TV, and WCCO television and radio. He's also suing the city of Sauk Rapids and a police sergeant who posted comments about him on the Officer Down Memorial Page.


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