BOISE — The Idaho Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled allegations should be dismissed against two journalists and two news media outlets — including Boise’s KTVB — that found themselves in court when a former teacher sued them for defamation, although a third news outlet could still face a trial.
Idaho Supreme Court justices in September heard oral arguments in the case, which stemmed from that agency’s reporting on a relationship teacher James Verity had with an 18-year-old female student in 2005. At the time, Verity taught in Prineville, Oregon. That same year the school where he worked relieved him of his coaching duties, and he resigned from his teaching position two days later. He later reapplied for a teaching license in Oregon, and also applied for one in Idaho — and received it. He took teaching positions in the Caldwell School District and at Vallivue’s Sage Valley Middle School. In November 2014, he also began coaching basketball at Eagle High School.
He was in that position when Steve Reilly, an investigative reporter for USA Today, began to do research for a piece on teacher misconduct across the country. Reilly and his editors “wanted to do a national analysis of teacher misconduct to identify any issues in the systems that are meant to protect students from teacher misconduct,” according to documents filed as part of the case. The piece included a great deal of data from school districts across the country, and while Reilly uncovered information about Verity’s past in Oregon, the USA Today piece, which was published Feb. 15, 2016, didn’t mention him.
Still, USA Today distributed the data from Reilly’s investigation to its media partners across the country. Among those news outlets were KTVB in Boise and KGW-TV in Portland. Those outlets did report on Verity specifically, and it was because of those reports Verity and his wife in March 2016 filed a lawsuit against USA Today, Reilly, KGW-TV, KTVB, and Tami Tremblay, a journalist for KTVB.
The Veritys alleged defamation, invasion of privacy, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Verity did not, however, claim the piece was inaccurate, nor did he ask the news organizations to retract it, according to court documents.
Deb Kristensen, who represented the media during the case, said during deposition, Verity confirmed the details in Reilly’s reporting.Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Melissa Moody in October 2017 ruled if Verity could prove the reporting “though literally true, could create false inference” and if he could prove the reporters were “negligent in publishing a false statement,” Verity might have a case for “defamation by implication” — meaning the implications, not the facts, of the USA Today piece had damaged his reputation.
In Monday’s decision, the Idaho Supreme Court justices ruled USA Today, Reilly, KTVB and Tremblay all did their part to accurately report the facts. They noted, for instance, the news stories and broadcasts focused more on the state systems in place that allowed Verity to obtain his teaching license again, and also noted “the KTVB broadcast unambiguously stated that Verity told his principal about his actions in Oregon.” Justices also struck down the notion that the media implied Verity had committed a crime by having a sexual relationship with the student, noting the media reported the student was 18 and even if the relationship was “inappropriate,” it was still technically legal. Verity also alleged the reporting made him appear to be a predator who was a danger to female students, but justices pointed out the media only quoted a report from a psychologist, who recommended Verity “not be left alone with female students over the age of twelve, both for his protection and the potential students.”
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The justices further noted “even if it were found to establish an untrue implication, it specifically relies upon the report of” the psychologist, and the media “simply reported” it.
It gave the Idaho Supreme Court a chance to discuss “defamation by implication.” In Monday’s decision, the justices ruled if a person can prove “that a false implication was made with the endorsement of the publisher, or with the intent to defame, even regarding a matter of public concern,” they might have a case.
When the justices applied that standard to the circumstances in the Verity case, however, they found problems with many of his claims.
Thus, the justices ruled, Verity’s case against USA Today, Reilly, KTVB and Tremblay did not hold up in court. His case against KGW-TV was stronger, however, because that station’s employees did not explicitly say the student Verity had a relationship with was 18 years old — and thus, could have created the impression Verity committed a crime, namely having sexual contact with a minor. Whether the media organization intended to create that impression would be at the heart of the issue, according to Monday’s ruling.
“The nature of the broadcast and its context also plays into this conclusion, leaving for a jury to consider whether KGW intended or endorsed the idea that Verity committed a sexual crime against a minor,” the justices wrote.
In that respect, the justices agreed with Moody’s October 2017 decision. They also agreed with her ruling that Verity, in his role as a school teacher, was never a public figure — an important clarification, given that public figures must prove news outlets acted with “actual malice” against them in a lawsuit. Private individuals have more protection than that.
The Idaho Supreme Court reversed Moody’s other decisions in the case though, and remanded it back to the the 4th Judicial District so a judge there could “act consistently with this opinion.”
Tommy Simmons is the Ada County public safety reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow him on Twitter @tsimmonsipt