Elected Official: I'll Sue You If You Publish My Name
If you’re a reporter and want to write about an elected official, do you need to obtain permission from the politician in advance to include their name in your news story?
Of course not. You could imagine the chilling effect on journalism if people elected to positions of power could shut down media inquiries they didn’t like by denying the reporter permission to write about them.
Kirby Delauter, a county council member in Frederick County, Maryland, doesn’t appear to agree. He took to his Facebook page yesterday to denounce a local reporter, Bethany Rodgers of The Frederick News-Post, because he “did not authorize any use of my name.” He also included this rather menacing line: “You need to know who you’re dealing with.”
To cap off his post, Mr. Delauter threatened to sue her: “Use my name again unauthorized and you’ll be paying for an attorney.”
I’d like to give Mr. Delauter the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible that he doesn’t have a lot of media experience and truly believes that he has the right to prevent a journalist from using his name without his authorization. Therefore, I want to use this post to write something productive.
Sir, you have no legal standing on which to sue a journalist for using your name without authorization. In order for a public figure to prove libel, you would need to show that Ms. Rodgers knew her statements to be false or had a reckless disregard for the truth. That’s a legal standard that’s extremely difficult to meet.
As you’ve seen from the reaction to your Facebook post (which appears to have been deleted), you only helped to attract more attention to Ms. Rodgers’ original article; among others, The Washington Post has now helped to make this a national story.
But you’re not without rights.
First, if Ms. Rodgers (or any other journalist) is going to write a story about you with or without your participation in it, you might consider granting her an interview—or at least providing her with a short written statement. Although it might seem paradoxical to exert control by speaking to a reporter you view as unfair, it may not be. The reason for that is something I call “The Rule of Thirds.” I made a video about that here.
If Ms. Rodgers is being unfair, as you assert, this post offers you seven things you can do to respond to a negative news story. To protect yourself, you can insist on only communicating in writing (so you can maintain a paper trail) or recording your interviews (some states require two-party notification before recording, so just tell her you’re recording). You can even call into question her fairness as a reporter by offering evidence that proves she has “lied,” as you stated she did. What you can’t do—at least not credibly—is threaten to sue her for mentioning your name.
There’s one other thing I’d ask you to consider. Whether you like it or not, The Frederick News-Post is going to continue to cover you. Therefore, think about what’s going to serve your interests over the months and years to come. It might be that reducing the antagonism between you and the newspaper serves you best; if so, you might consider requesting a meeting with Ms. Rodgers and her editor to discuss your complaints with the paper’s coverage, point out any inaccuracies, and establish a more productive future working relationship.
The point is that you do have some control here—but it needs to be exercised the right way to be effective. Good luck.
Facebook screenshot via Kai Hagen; photo from Kirby Delauter’s public campaign page.
UPDATE: JANUARY 7, 2015, 10PM
Mr. Delauter issued the following apology today to The Frederick News-Post. It strikes the right tone, appears authentic, and reflects an appropriate amount of self-awareness. It should help put this issue behind him.
“The first amendment is alive and well in Frederick County. As a public figure working to maintain and improve the county, it can be very frustrating to feel misrepresented or misinterpreted by a local media outlet.
Over my career I have fired off my fair share of angry e-mails, which in hindsight I wish I hadn’t. I can’t think of one that had a positive effect. Usually, they only served to escalate the conflict. I thought I had long ago learned the lesson of waiting 24 hours before I hit the send key, but apparently I didn’t learn that lesson as well as I should have.
Of course, as I am an elected official, the Frederick News-Post has the right to use my name in any article related to the running of the county — that comes with the job. So yes, my statement to the Frederick News-Post regarding the use of my name was wrong and inappropriate. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong.
I got elected to serve all the citizens of northern Frederick County, Democrats as well as Republicans. I look forward to the local papers covering my effort in that regard.”