On November 15 KSTP-TV (Channel 5) was sued in United States District Court by anonymous plaintiffs charging defamation, libel, and invasion of privacy. Strangely, the news segment that allegedly caused such harm had yet to air, and the plaintiffs were hoping it never would. Their lawsuit sought an injunction prohibiting "Seeking Salvation," a two-part investigative report about a religious colony in Shawano, Wisconsin, from being broadcast.
The legal ploy didn't work, and Judge Michael Davis allowed the first part of reporter Robb Leer's investigation to air that evening. It featured interviews in which former members of the religious group describe a place where children are routinely assaulted with cattle prods, confined in pickle barrels, and denied medical treatment.
A second libel suit was filed the next day, again including a request that "Seeking Salvation" be blocked from the airwaves. This time a different judge, Paul Magnuson, refused to censor the broadcast. "You are more likely to be abducted by aliens than you are to see an order in which a judge restrains a broadcast prior to the time it is to air," scoffs Paul Hannah, the attorney representing KSTP in the matter.
In the second part of KSTP's report, a former cult member, Gaeland Priebe, confessed to having had a sexual relationship with an underage relative living at the compound. Priebe, now facing criminal sexual conduct charges, blamed his past behavior on mind-control practiced by cult leaders.
Despite KSTP's initial courtroom triumphs it is not out of the legal woods. The libel case before Judge Magnuson is still pending and the defendants, who are still considering their next move, have until the end of this week to file a response.
The only plaintiff whose identity can be discerned is identified as "A.M.P." She is described in court documents as the 20-year-old daughter of Gaeland Priebe and alleges that she was sexually abused by him. However, A.M.P. herself is never actually mentioned in "Seeking Salvation." The other plaintiffs in the case--"John or Jane Doe(s)"--are described in court documents only as "professionals and businesspersons that stand to suffer irreparable harm by Defendants' actions."
Jane Kirtley, who teaches media law at the University of Minnesota, says that the vague description of the plaintiffs will make it extremely difficult to prove libel. She also speculates that the lawsuit may have just been "saber rattling" intended to scare KSTP into cutting the segment. (Plaintiff attorney John Scott declined to comment.)
"Lawsuits are never fun," concludes Gary Hill, KSTP's director of investigations and special segments. "But I'm optimistic that in the long run we're going to prevail. There's nothing in any of this that indicates that any part of the report was flawed."