September 13, 2006

Georgia Federal Court Dismisses Day Care Surveillance Video Claim

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Jennifer A. Mansfield

A television station did not materially distort surveillance video of a day care center when it showed high-speed images initially reported as depicting child abuse, a Georgia federal court recently ruled. Because the footage was substantially truthful, the court dismissed a defamation claim against the station.

The case began after a mother withdrew her son from the plaintiff’s day care program, Friendship First Step Child Development Center. Four months later, the mother anonymously received a videotape copy of surveillance footage from the day care’s security cameras. The day care’s camera had filmed the images at high speed.

The mother concluded from the tape that a day care worker had abused her son by dropping him to the ground and kicking him. She contacted the county sheriff’s office and the defendant, WALB-TV, in Albany, Ga. A station cameraman filmed the surveillance tape as the mother played it on a VCR for sheriff’s deputies. The action appeared at a high rate of speed as it had been recorded at the day care center. A reporter interviewed the mother and went to the day care center, but could not obtain a comment as it was after hours.

That night and twice the next day, the station broadcast a story that included the high-speed footage, the interview of the mother, an explanation of how she received the tape and turned it over to authorities, and the mother’s allegation of child abuse. About a week later, the station aired a follow-up story that reported “when the sheriff’s department played the surveillance video in real time and examined it more closely it was the department’s opinion that it showed no child abuse.”

The day care center sued the station for defamation, claiming that it lost 11 customers as a result of the story. The station moved for summary judgment on the basis that the newscasts were substantially true. The plaintiff countered the broadcast was false because WALB-TV altered the surveillance tape, and the allegations contained in the report were false and the station knew, or should have known, that they were false.

On May 10, 2006, the United States District Court of the Middle District of Georgia granted summary judgment in favor the station. Friendship Empowerment and Economic Development, CDC, Inc., d/b/a Friendship First Step Child Development Center v. WALB-TV; Liberty Corporation d/b/a WALB-TV; and Cosmos Broadcasting Corporation, d/b/a WALB-TV. The court found that the station did not distort the picture, and, therefore, no reasonable juror could conclude that the broadcast report was false. The court emphasized undisputed evidence that the videotape had been received by the mother and shown on television in its original form. The trial court cited deposition testimony that established that the day care center recorded the tape in high speed, and a special machine was required to play back the tape at normal speed. The day care representative also testified that when the surveillance video was unaltered it plays back on high speed on regular VCRs, and she had no personal knowledge whether the television station had altered the video. “The portions that were broadcast were just as [the cameraman] had filmed it[,]” the court held. “The publication of the surveillance video as played on a regular VCR was, therefore, a truthful depiction of the surveillance video.”

The trial court also held that the reported statement by the mother – that the surveillance showed her son being abused – is a protected opinion. Relying on Georgia and United States Supreme Court precedent, the court held that “when ‘an opinion is based upon facts already disclosed in the communication, the expression of the opinion implies nothing other than the speaker’s subjective interpretation of the facts ... . [A] statement of [opinion] is actionable only if it implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts as the basis for the opinion.” (emphasis original). The court then held that nothing in the broadcast implied that the mother had any additional information about the alleged child abuse.

The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the fact that the surveillance video was played at a speed faster than real speed distorted what actually happened and thus was defamatory in and of itself. The trial court held that the surveillance video was in exactly the same speed as it was when it left the plaintiff’s facility and when it was first viewed by the mother. “Therefore, it was an accurate depiction of what [the mother] viewed in forming her opinion about the child abuse.”

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