LIVINGSTON — Two Livingston Parish Council members want a judge to toss out a pair of defamation lawsuits, claiming they never named the people allegedly defamed in a TV news report.
An attorney for council members Marshall Harris and Cindy Wale Franz argued Monday that a WBRZ-TV reporter selectively edited and placed the council members’ statements into a news broadcast to make it appear as though they were confirming facts reportedly uncovered by the reporter.
Attorney Charles Schutte said his clients should not be held responsible for the reporter’s statements in the March 2013 broadcast, which alleged that former Council Clerk Mary Kistler changed the wording of a resolution to allow Alvin Fairburn & Associates to bill for unauthorized road engineering work.
But Fairburn’s and Kistler’s attorneys said the two council members knew the allegations were being made against the firm and former clerk, and should be held responsible for the damage their statements caused.
Fairburn and Kistler have sued Harris and Wale Franz personally for defamation.
Judge Wayne Ray Chutz, of the 21st Judicial District Court, took the matter under advisement Monday, saying he wanted to view the news broadcast and its transcript before issuing a ruling.
During the March 2013 broadcast about the allegedly unauthorized roadwork, Harris was quoted as saying, “That is a problem. We spent money that was not authorized to do that.”
Wale Franz was quoted saying, “It is very scary to think something like that could change that would cost our, you know, dollars to taxpayers.”
Schutte said his clients were speaking hypothetically in response to the reporter’s questions, which were not included in the broadcast. He said the two council members did not name any person or allege that any specific act was a crime. They could have been talking about anything, he said of Harris’ and Wale Franz’s quotes.
But Daniel Davis, Fairburn’s attorney, said Harris and Wale Franz have admitted they gave the interview to discuss their vote on the Duff Road project as it related to Fairburn and Kistler.
“They knew what they were talking about, and everyone in this courtroom today knows what they were talking about,” Davis said.
Davis said Harris and Wale Franz should not be able to make false or defamatory statements about someone simply by refusing to name them.
“They meant to convey exactly what they conveyed,” Karl Koch, Kistler’s attorney, said.
Harris and Wale Franz lost two related motions Monday to have the case tossed out on the grounds that Fairburn and Kistler failed to state a legal claim or that the council members’ interview with the reporter was a privileged communication protected by the First Amendment.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.