'Public figure' status addressed

Published April 16, 2005 1:30 am
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A Utah Supreme Court ruling Friday may have been good for former KTVX Channel 4 television health reporter Holly Wayment, but bad for her profession.

Wayment had sued her former employer, accusing former bosses Jeff Fischer and Patrick Benedict of making false statements about the circumstances of her resignation from the station. Third District Judge Stephen Henriod had dismissed the defamation suit last year.

But the high court justices revived a portion of the case, overturning Henriod's finding that Wayment was a "public figure." Public figures must prove statements made about them were both false and malicious, a higher standard than other plaintiffs face.

While the decision was good news for Wayment, Salt Lake City attorney Randy Dryer says the court's definition of a public figure could mean more libel lawsuits for reporters.

"It's been very hard for a public figure to recover against a reporter because of the additional burdens," said Dryer, who represented the station in the appeal.

"Now the pool of public figures is going to be dramatically lessened. To qualify as a public figure under the court's ruling here, you basically have to be a household name, a celebrity type."

Dryer said he sees the ruling as part of a national trend of courts eroding journalistic protections.

Wayment claimed rumors were spread that she was paid by the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which she frequently reported on. Wayment has said she only proposed to the Institute that it help with the creation of a charity that would match volunteers with child cancer patients.

Henriod had ruled Wayment was a public figure, and dismissed the complaint saying Wayment's witnesses could not prove her defamation claims.

On appeal, Dryer argued Wayment was a public figure in part because she was marketed by the station and known to thousands of viewers for her reports and charitable roles in the community.

But on Friday the justices said Wayment did not rise to the level of an all-purpose public figure by nature of her profession or notoriety. She likewise did not qualify as a "limited" public figure by injecting herself into any high-profile controversy, they said.

"If we were to accept these facts as sufficient evidence of general fame in the local community, any reporter would likely qualify as an all-purpose public figure," wrote Chief Justice Christine M. Durham.

The ruling sends the case back to trial for Wayment's claims against Benedict and Clear Channel Broadcasting, Inc. The justices affirmed the lower court's dismissal of her claims against Fischer.

An attorney representing Wayment was not immediately available for comment.

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