LIVINGSTON — The Baton Rouge television station WBRZ-TV says it did not defame a former Walker Police officer when it ran a news report last year about an officer who hung what appeared to be a noose over a desk in the department.
"This is a legitimate media entity reporting on a legitimate matter of public concern, the suspension of a police officer under these circumstances," Chase Tettleton, an attorney for the news station, said in court Monday. "This is at the core of what the First Amendment is intended to protect."
WBRZ-TV was first to report that an unnamed officer, later identified as former Sgt. Mark Fruge, received a three-day suspension for hanging in the police station what appeared to be a noose in February 2017. Fruge maintains he hung a cookie inside a slip knot, which was intended as a joke about prison rape, not lynching.
Fruge resigned from his post in March 2017 and sued the station and city officials in November 2017.
Tettleton argued in court that the case should be thrown out with a special motion to strike. The procedure is applicable in what are known as SLAPP lawsuits (strategic lawsuit against public participation), "meritless claims brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech to and petition for redress of grievances," according to the TV station's legal briefs.
"This is the circumstance the legislature enacted the anti-SLAPP statute in Louisiana for: To protect media defendants like WBRZ from defamation claims by folks that were dissatisfied by the way they are shown on air when those showings are accurate," Tettleton said.
Tettleton further argued that the TV station's reports were accurate and based on information from Police Chief David Addison, an internal investigation report and a photo of the knot in question.
"If anything, there is some dispute over terminology," Tettleton said.
Fruge's attorney, Robert Aguiluz, argued the TV station defamed the ex-sergeant by saying falsely that his client admitted to hanging a "noose" and a "symbol of hate."
"If you take something that may be somewhat true and you sensationalize it, that can become defamation," Aguiluz said in an interview after the hearing.
Aguiluz is also claiming that since the TV report was presented as investigative, reporter Chris Nakamoto should have done more investigating. The attorney said Nakamoto should have doubted what he was told by the police chief, because of inconsistencies in his statements.
"WBRZ has taken a position that Chris Nakamoto just repeated what he was told. Because it came from the chief, he didn't have to investigate. My position is that he does in fact. They're representing to the public that they did an investigation. So, anything said in that story has to be considered in that light," Aguiluz said.
In court, Tettleton said that argument is "absurd."
“There is no way that any court anywhere can say … you heard this, you should have asked one more person. Because you didn't ask one more person, that’s defamation," Tettleton said.
Twenty-first Judicial District Judge Charlotte Foster took the matter under advisement.