St. Louis Public Radio Claims Immunity From Lawsuits For Defamation. You May Not Believe The Reason.

At a hearing yesterday in a lawsuit brought by the former general manager of St. Louis Public Radio, an attorney representing the station put forth a surprising defense: that the local NPR affiliate is unique among the major news outlets in town in that it can’t be sued for defamation.

Tim Eby’s lawsuit is against the University of Missouri Board of Curators, which operates the radio station. He alleges that the station published false statements about him, including that he “chose to uphold white supremacy” and mismanaged the station’s finances. But the attorney for the university, Joseph Martineau, argued that Eby’s suit must be dismissed because the sovereign immunity enjoyed by the state of Missouri extends down to St. Louis Public Radio.

Sovereign immunity is a legal concept that provides government entities broad protections from civil litigation, not unlike the concept of qualified immunity which makes suing police officers for their misconduct so difficult.

When asked after the hearing if it created a moral hazard to have a media operation immune from suits of libel, slander, and defamation, Martineau replied, “No comment.”

Although such lawsuits, and the mere specter of them, can be the bane of a journalist’s existence, recent legal action such as the successful Dominion Voting Systems suit against Fox News and a Kentucky high schooler’s suit against CNN have shown the critical — if annoying — role such litigation serves for people who have been legitimately smeared.

But Tina Pamintuan, St. Louis Public Radio’s CEO (and Eby’s replacement), said the public need not worry. “I am 100 percent confident in the journalism that is produced at STLPR. Our reporters are highly trained professionals who take a lot of care in their work. 

“STLPR exists to uplift its community and this region through fair, rigorous, fact-based news and information. That is our focus and it’s important that we continue to keep that in mind. Like all nonprofit media, we have limited resources that are put to best use by prioritizing our mission.”

(The station also made clear they have adopted NPR’s Ethics Handbook in addition to their own editorial standards.)

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Joseph Patrick Whyte is weighing the station’s motion to dismiss on those sovereign immunity grounds.

Yesterday’s hearing before Whyte was the first hearing in the lawsuit Eby filed last August. Eby had been the local station’s general manager for 11 years until he resigned in September 2020.

A month prior to Eby’s removal, a group of station staffers published a blog post accusing him of choosing “to uphold white supremacy at the station.” Eby’s lawsuit cites a story published on the radio station’s website linking to and quoting that blog post. The suit also cites another story, published roughly a year later announcing the hiring of the new CEO, Pamintuan, which refers to Eby having resigned “amid accusations from newsroom staff that he ignored problems of systemic racism at the station and mismanaged finances.”

Eby’s attorney Christian Montroy has written in court filings that the station had ample reason to know those claims about Eby were false. He cites initiatives and task forces around diversity implemented at the station under Eby’s tenure, as well as a grant the station received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to boost the diversity of its news coverage, audiences, and staff.

Now, Montroy is perplexed at the idea that the media operation is immune from the same sort of lawsuits that its peers like the Post-Dispatch and even the Riverfront Times are subject to.

“They are representing themselves as state-controlled media,” says Montroy. “And so they are trying to argue that as an arm of the state they can call anyone a white supremacist or even a pedophile” and not be subject to litigation. He cites the station’s own Statement of Editorial Integrity as evidence it maintains “editorial independence” from the board of curators.

Montroy says that even though the station is operated by the University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio itself is a “proprietary function,” a legal term meaning that the station’s purpose is a nongovernmental one. In arguments, he specifically referenced the quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, saying that it is “ridiculous” that airing such a program is a function of the government in the manner of educating students at a state university.

He also argues that the radio station carried $3 million of liability insurance covering its content. The existence of an insurance policy could potentially waive sovereign immunity protections. It also raises the question of why the station needed insurance if they were immune from lawsuits to begin with.

Eby’s lawsuit is now playing out against the backdrop of a wider controversy surrounding the national NPR organization, touched off last week when longtime senior business editor Uri Berliner penned an essay accusing his employer of representing a “distilled worldview of a very small segment of the U.S. population.”

In his essay and subsequent interviews, he has cited as examples of this worldview a multitude of editorial practices within the organization, including having reporters record all of their sources’ race and gender information as well as an in-house style in which is it verboten to use the term terrorists to refer to the Hamas militants who murdered 1,200 Israelis, including children, the elderly and music festival revelers, on October 7. 

Berliner has since resigned. 

After yesterday’s hearing, both sides await Judge Whyte’s ruling on the Board of Curator’s motion to dismiss. Court filings indicate a jury trial in the matter is set for July, though that will almost certainly get pushed back, if the matter goes to trial at all.

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