City of Guyton Claims Defamation, Demands Written Apology from Reporter Over Public Records Reporting

The City of Guyton, by and through its city attorney, is claiming defamatory remarks were made when a comparison of public records was published and is now demanding a written apology.

The Claims As Stated 

A video published on a personal Facebook page on March 10 drew the ire of the police chief after claims were made that the police department was inflating its statistics on calls for service. 

The inquiry began following a number of tips from first responders in and outside of Effingham County, along with a general understanding of ‘calls for service’ as they’re reported and discussed in other cities and counties around the state. 

Data was obtained from Effingham 911 on ‘calls initiated by officers and calls initiated by the public’ and compared that data to the reports made in council meetings each month. The comparison reflected a vast discrepancy, which was outlined in the video.

Here are the claims made as depicted in a screen-by-screen grid view:

Claims of Defamation

City Attorney Ben Perkins of OliverManer in Savannah sent a letter regarding the video, making demands for removal and claiming the video was defamatory. 

The letter also included correspondence with the police chief following his own independent investigation with Effingham 911 where he sought a letter from the agency about the statistics. The agency did not mention ‘inaccurate’ information or an omission of data, but rather ‘a discrepancy’ because what the chief sought varied from what was sought for the video comparison.

The City Attorney further alleged that the ‘inaccurate and false’ reporting:

  • erodes the public’s trust in the Guyton Police Department,
  • drives a wedge between law enforcement officers and the community they serve, and
  • has harmed the reputation of Chief Breletic and his fellow officers.
Erosion of Public Trust & Driven Wedges

Even if the reporting was inaccurate (which it is not), it is neither illegal nor defamatory to ‘erode public trust’ just as it is neither to ‘drive a wedge between law enforcement and the community.’ 

Further, Mr. Perkins and the Guyton Police Department would have to prove:

  1. that the public’s trust was actually eroded, 
  2. a wedge was driven between the agency and the community, and 
  3. that the statements about calls for service were the sole cause of said erosion and said wedge.

It would be difficult to do that given the flurry of headlines about the Guyton Police Department and its employees, including:

Of course, neither the city attorney nor the police department are refuting the validity of any of the claims asserted in those articles.

As far as the claims of harm to the reputation of Breletic and his fellow officers, the only direct reference to the police chief himself was the mention that he is the one that reads the report to council each month. No officers were mentioned in the video. This specific reference is outlined in Minday v. Constitution Publishing Co. (1935) and Floyd v. Atlanta Newspapers, Inc (1960).

This is reiterated by the city attorney when he states in his March 21, 2022 that the inaccurate claims were that the “Guyton Police Department was lying about the number of calls/amount of work it reports to council each month,” “has been lying about calls for service,” and “has overstated calls for service by 556 calls.” (emphasis added)

What is Defamation?

OCGA § 51-5-1 defines libel (written untruths) as “a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.’ Elements of malice include knowing the statement was false or defamatory, acting with reckless disregard for the truth, or acting negligently in failing to ascertain whether the statement was true or not.

The courts in Georgia have ruled repeatedly on the definition and elements of defamation and libel, to include:

  • Savannah News-Press, Inc. v. Hartridge (1964)
    • If truth of article is proven, it is immaterial altogether whether it may have been viewed as in “poor taste” by anybody, for the defense of justification is established and the defendant is entitled to a verdict.
    • Truth is perfect defense in civil action for libel or slander. 
  • Jones v. Neighbor Newspapers, Inc., (1977)
    • What is usually required is that the publication shall be substantially accurate; and if the article is published by the newspaper in good faith and the same is substantially accurate, the newspaper has a complete defense. 
    • As long as the facts in a newspaper are not misstated, distorted, or arranged so as to convey a false and defamatory meaning, there is no liability for a somewhat less than complete report of the truth.
    • Libel must be false as well as malicious. 
  • Bickerstaff v. SunTrust Bank, (U.S. 2016).
    • Addressed public figures and social media posts
Is a police department, or city government generally, a private citizen or a public person?

A police department is neither.
A city government is neither.

Further, the police chief is not a private citizen and, under the precedent, neither are the police officers. In the Georgia case Evans v. Sandersville Georgian, Inc. (2009), the court found that “as a public figure, the officer had to establish actual malice on the part of the newspaper under O.C.G.A. § 51-5-7(9) and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), but failed to do so because the statements at issue were opinions that were not susceptible of being proved true or false.”

Why does this matter?

The city attorney asserted in his letter that the courts ‘found evidence of a reporter’s malice when a reporter was provided information demonstrating that her reporting is false, but she failed to retract the articles and failed to publish a correction of the inaccurate reporting.’ The city attorney even acknowledged in his letter that the numbers did not match those from Effingham 911, but still contends there is a malicious intent in comparing the city records with those of Effingham 911.

If a person alleging defamation is a public figure, the claims can only be held to the standard of ‘reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statement.’ 

Utilizing video footage from a city council meeting, filing open records requests with the City of Guyton, and comparing that to the reputable agency of Effingham 911 hardly appears ‘reckless’ or without regard for the truth. It also isn’t negligent. 

Altering statements made by me at the demands of an attorney who is paid $1,375 to attend one city council meeting appears to show more reckless disregard for the truth than adhering to public records.

Demands for Remedy

The city attorney demanded the following on behalf of the city and the police chief.

  1. Immediately remove all ‘inaccurate posts and articles’ regarding the Guyton Police Department from all social media and websites
    1. There are no inaccurate posts or articles to remove
  2. Conspicuously post a retraction of your prior inaccurate reporting regarding the Guyton Police Department and Breletic on all websites and social media accounts “over which you have control” 
    1. See 1a.
    2. Further, there will be no issuance of retractions and statements on unaffiliated social media accounts simply because of ‘ownership’ or control.
  3. Provide a written apology to the City and Chief Breletic 
    1. There will be no apology, written or otherwise

In order for something to be false or inaccurate, it has to be untrue. 

When examining the data, when comparing with other agencies, and when considering the information as a private individual with an opinion, it is clear the department is overstating the calls for service. 

No matter how you slice the pie, the result is the same: nothing false or inaccurate was reported.

If it’s classified as an opinion, it cannot be false.

If it’s classified as a factual statement, and the statements are based on public statements, public records, and general dictionary definitions, it is not inaccurate.

Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and a commentator on the 'Let Me Tell You Why You're Wrong Podcast.'

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