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Libel cases and cannabis oil – ONMA gets involved

Dennis Hetzel 2018By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

What do a libel case against a Columbus television station and the legality of sales of so-called “hemp oil” products have in common?

The answer is that ONMA gets involved in legal matters when we find an issue of significant concern to our members. In those situations, we must help and try to make a difference.

Let’s start with the libel case. The stakes are high in Aaron Anderson et al v. WBNS-TV.  That’s because an adverse ruling could force Ohio media outlets to say “no” in many situations in which law enforcement agencies ask you to publish photos or videos of suspects or “subjects of interest.”

The gist of the case is this: In August 2017 the Columbus Police Department asked for help in locating those who might have been responsible for robbing an 8-year-old girl at gunpoint. WBNS ran the police-provided photos on their website and on the air. The plaintiffs saw the photos and went to the police, convincing them they weren’t involved. The police issued a second advisory saying the identifying photo should be removed, which WBNS promptly did. The plaintiffs weren’t publicly named.

The plaintiffs sued for libel and defamation. WBNS won a motion to dismiss in the lower court. The plaintiffs appealed. The Tenth Appellate District overturned the dismissal. In the process, the court wrote what, in my opinion, was a terrible decision with an anti-media tone.

The effect of the ruling would force you to independently fact-check requests by police to question or arrest people. Otherwise, you could be sued if information the police supplied turned out to be incorrect.  This, of course, is impossible in most cases, and would not serve the public well.  We believe this also overturns settled law that the news media must be able to rely on information provided by law enforcement without fear of liability.

The Ohio Association of Broadcasters led a group, including the ONMA, that funded an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief supporting WBNS in an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. Others involved included the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio and Television News Directors.

Most significantly, Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office filed a separate, supporting brief that clearly and explicitly noted that the problem created by the Tenth District decision is “not theoretical.” The AG’s brief cites specific examples of how media cooperation with Ohio law enforcement agencies has helped capture criminals, sometimes when it’s urgent to get information out quickly.

While we can all sympathize with people in circumstances such as the situation faced by the plaintiffs, the appellate court’s decision simply cannot be allowed to stand. We’re hopeful the Supreme Court will see things that way.

Now for hemp oil and similar products.

We have had member questions related to the sale of “CBD oils,” which are over-the-counter products around the country. You may recall stories about Target adding and then removing these products from their website. The oils are purported to treat a variety of ailments. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration maintains these are illegal, Schedule 1 substances.

We are advising that these products are illegal in Ohio. The Ohio Pharmacy Board has said that definitely will be the case until medical marijuana dispensaries are in operation. Even then, the ban will continue until such products pass testing requirements. If and when the CBD products are allowed, the product only will be sold to patients who have a physician’s recommendation.

We’ve provided a few links below if you want to drill deeper. As you will see, the situation is murky, and you could try to make an argument that some oils derived from hemp are legal. However, we cannot recommend that Ohio media outlets accept advertising for these oils at this time.

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