Mass. SJC Sides With UMass Student Newspaper In Defamation Suit Over Police Blotter Report

The state's highest court says the editor of a University of Massachusetts student newspaper was right to rely on a police blotter for a report of a suspicious man that turned out to be false, but didn't extend those protections to all items in a police log.

Supreme Judicial Court Justice Barbara Lenk wrote in the decision that the fair report privilege — which protects the press's right to report on official proceedings or actions -- shielded the Mass Media editor from liability in the suit brought by a former UMass employee whose photo was published alongside the report.

But Lenk declined to extend the fair report privilege to cover all statements in police blotters, writing that would "blur the line we have drawn between privileged official statements and actions, and unprivileged unofficial ones."

The case stemmed from a March 2013 report in the UMass Boston police department blotter that a man was acting suspiciously near campus, taking photos of women on a bus. Mass Media, the student newspaper, published the report along with a police department provided photo of the unidentified man.

The photo was of Jon Butcher, then a security engineer for UMass's IT department, who said he was taking photos of the buses because he wanted to document safety concerns he saw.

He was never charged and no photos of women were found on his phone. After the publication, he said he experienced hostility on campus and left his job seven months after the report ran. He then filed the lawsuit against the newspaper's editor and UMass employees.

Headshot of Ally Jarmanning

Ally Jarmanning Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.



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