NC Supreme Court case challenges media claim of ‘fair report privilege’

  • A man challenging a Triangle TV station's reliance on the "fair report privilege" is taking his case to the N.C. Supreme Court.
  • Wesley Walker claims he lost his job and reputation after WTVD aired a false report based on a "flimsy," four-word email from the Wake County Sheriff's Office.

A man who says he was fired from his nursing assistant’s job after a false television news report hopes the N.C. Supreme Court will revive his lawsuit against the Triangle TV station. The suit challenges the station’s reliance on the “fair report privilege.”

Wesley Walker filed a brief Monday with the high court in his case against WTVD.

The dispute arose from a report on WTVD’s 6 p.m. newscast in August 2019. The report alleged that Walker had hit an elderly patient in the face while working at his job.

Walker had been “falsely charged with assault by his stepfather,” according to Monday’s brief. “Even though this allegation was false, it had no connection to the Plaintiff’s employment as a [certified nursing assistant], at an assisted living facility.”

“WTVD has admitted that this story created the impression that Mr. Walker assaulted an elderly patient,” according to the brief. “As a result of this story, Mr. Walker was fired, and his reputation was impaired. He was forced to work at a pizza restaurant when he could not find
employment as a CNA.”

The false report stemmed from communication between the TV station and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, according to the brief.

Reporter Ed Crump sent an email on Aug. 15, 2019, to sheriff’s employee Eric Curry. “Just asking for a quick check to make sure this charge isn’t related to this guy’s job as [sic] Capital Nursing,” Crump wrote. “I’m guessing it’s domestic but if it’s related to a client from Capital Nursing I’m interested in more details.”

“Related to his employer,” Curry responded on the same day, according to court documents.

“This four-word email, which was not in an official report, was not in the arrest warrant, and was not published to the general public, was the only information provided to WTVD indicating that the criminal charge pertained to the Plaintiff’s employment,” wrote John Kirby, Walker’s lawyer.

A different WTVD employee contacted Walker’s employer, Capital Nursing. A staffer indicated that Capital Nursing had no patients matching the name of the alleged assault victim and that the alleged assault hadn’t taken place at the facility. No one contacted Walker, according to his brief.

With no other confirmation, the TV station aired the story.

“The Plaintiff actually saw this story when it aired live, and was around several other employees of Capital Nursing, who saw the same story. The Plaintiff was shocked and horrified at this story,” Kirby wrote. “As a direct result of this false broadcast, the Plaintiff lost his job with Capital Nursing. The Plaintiff has not been able to resume his career as a CNA.”

Walker sued both the Wake County Sheriff’s Office and WTVD in August 2020. An August 2022 ruling from the N.C. Court of Appeals allowed Walker to proceed with his lawsuit against the sheriff’s office. But the same court affirmed a lower court’s ruling favoring WTVD against Walker’s legal claims.

“The Court of Appeals held that the ‘fair report privilege’ protected the news outlet, even though the facts contained in its report were false and defamatory, and even though the new story was not based on an official report,” Kirby wrote.

“The Fair Report Privilege does not apply to this case, and the Plaintiff’s case against WTVD should have been allowed to proceed,’ Kirby argued. “The opinion of the Court of Appeals expands the scope of the Fair Report Privilege from allowing the press to rely on an ‘official report,’ to allowing it to rely on a ‘flimsy email.’ This is not consistent with North Carolina law, is not consistent with the Restatement of Torts, and is not consistent with the modern trend of cases addressing this issue.”

“Mr. Curry’s four-word, one-on-one email to WTVD is not a report to which the fair report privilege applies,” Kirby added. “If WTVD had merely reported the contents of the Warrant for Arrest, or the contents of some other official report, then it may claim the fair report privilege. But the statement of Mr. Curry in an email, directed only to WTVD’s employee and not to the general public, which does not summarize some other official report, is not sufficient to invoke the fair report privilege.”

WTVD will have a chance to respond to Walker’s brief before the state Supreme Court hears the case.