Judge tosses ex-Public Lighting Authority CEO's defamation suit

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Odis Jones

Detroit — A federal judge Friday dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by the former CEO of the Public Lighting Authority against the owner of WXYZ-TV (Channel 7).

The lawsuit filed by Odis Jones failed because he was a public figure and the station did not act with actual malice while airing a series on suspicious severance payments involving Jones, according to an order filed Friday by U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman.

The order ends a nearly three-year legal ordeal and represents a First Amendment victory as the media face increasing claims of "fake news."

"Now more than ever, we depend upon the 'free press' to 'awaken public interest in governmental affairs' and to 'expos[e] corruption among public officers and employees,'" Leitman wrote, citing federal case law. "Indeed, '[t]he press plays a unique role as a check on government abuse' and serves 'as a watchdog of government activity.'”

Jones' lawyer could not be reached for comment Friday.

“Judge Leitman's thoughtful decision has important implications beyond this dispute," Scripps lawyer James Stewart wrote in an email to The News. "His decision reaffirms the core values that the First Amendment and a robust media serve in our society."

Jones sued Channel 7 owner Scripps Media three years ago after the station aired a series revealing that the public utility made more than $500,000 worth of severance payments to departing employees, including Jones. Jones signed agreements authorizing some of the payments and received one when he left the Public Lighting Authority in 2016.

The payments raised concern because some employees who received the previously undisclosed payments had accused Jones of misconduct and because the payments included nondisclosure agreements. Public Lighting Authority officials also had refused to discuss the payments.

One of the TV reports included a mistake, however. The report inadvertently misquoted a labor lawyer saying Jones had broken the law.

Jones and one of his companies cited the mistake and other alleged false statements in filing the lawsuit.

Leitman ruled that the misquote was not published with actual malice and attributed the mistake to "an accidental editing error."

"But 'mere negligence does not suffice to show actual malice,'" Leitman wrote.


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