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Olsen v. Providence Journal, Co.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

August 21, 2017

PHILIP OLSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL, CO., LYNN ARDITI, and RICHARD ASINOF, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          John J. McConnell, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Before the Court, at the motion to dismiss stage, is a defamation case that asks a simple question: does the fair report privilege apply?

         Rhode Island state officials hosted a press panel at the Adult Correctional Institutions ("ACI") to discuss a drug-treatment program for inmates. Several state officials and inmates spoke at the event. One of those inmates, Crystal Olsen, talked about her battle with addiction and withdrawal, and told a story about how her father prostituted her at the age of fourteen and started her on her heroin addiction. Defendant Lynn Arditi covered the press event and published an article online and in the newspaper of the Providence Journal, which included Ms. Olsen's story about her father, Plaintiff Philip Olsen. An internet news website, ConvergenceRI.com, posted a news story repeating the Providence Journals report of Ms. Olsen's story. But the ConvergenceRI went one step further, using Ms. Olsen's story to pose a series of hypothetical questions, such as, "Why exclude that part of Olsen's story about her father's abuse from the [op-ed] column?"

         In response to the articles, Mr. Olsen filed suit, claiming Ms. Olsen's story is false, and therefore the Defendants' stories are defamatory. The Defendants, in turn, have moved to dismiss the suit, asserting the fair report privilege. Because the Court finds that the privilege applies in this case, the Defendants' Motions to Dismiss (ECF Nos. 6 and 9) are GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Rhode Island's Executive Office of Health and Human Services and Rhode Island's Department of Corrections held an open-press panel discussion featuring corrections officials and inmates. The purpose of this press event was for state officials to discuss the success of its medication-assisted drug-treatment program implemented at the ACL The panel discussion included an official from the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services; three officials from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections! the White House Director of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli; and inmates from the ACI. During the panel discussion, government officials highlighted the benefits of medically treating (e.g., with methadone or suboxone (buprenorphine and naloxone)) inmates addicted to opioids.

         At some point during the event, government officials escorted four ACI inmates on stage, including Crystal Olsen, Ms. Olsen recounted her struggle with opioid addiction and the horrors of going through withdrawal without medication-assisted treatment. Relevant to this case, she went on to say:

I guess that [my father] started me using heroin and that led to him prostituting me because he was also a drug addict and he needed to support his habit and now I ended up with a drug habit that needed to be supported also,

         After attending the press event, Ms. Arditi[1] wrote a news article titled "U.S. drug czar Michael Botticelli calls RI a national leader in treating drug-addicted inmates, " which was posted on the Providence Journals website. The newspaper's print edition published an identical version of the article the following day, under the headline "Looking to R.I. as a model / U.S. drug czar cites treatment of drug-addicted inmates." The articles began by outlining the White House drug czar's visit to the ACI and then stated that the Obama administration plans to replicate the ACI's medication-assisted drug-treatment program on a national level. The articles go on to discuss how few prisoners have access to medication-assisted treatment.

         The Providence Journal articles then recapped Ms. Olsen's story. The relevant portions began with Ms. Olsen's description of withdrawal: "I lay on my bed shaking, throwing up, going to the bathroom." After discussing the logistics and costs of the drug-treatment program, the articles included the following:

Olsen, the mother who described going into withdrawal in her cell, said she was 14 when she began using heroin with her father, who was a drug addict. She said he prostituted her to support his habit. "The opiates would stop me from feeling what I've been through, " she said.

         The articles ended with this quote from Ms. Olsen: '"Every time I come into prison I have had to be taken off [methadone], ' she said. 'I relapse every time I leave jail because I've been taken off my methadone. I hope that it works this time."'

         Two weeks later, the Providence Journal published an op-ed piece--"Michael Botticelli and Gina M. Raimondo: R.I. makes progress on addiction"-jointly authored by U.S. Drug Czar Michael Botticelli and Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo. This piece discussed Rhode Island's medication-assisted drug-treatment program in the state's prison system and the positive impact it has on prisoners. While the article expressly referred to Ms. Olsen's experience with the program, it did not mention Ms. Olsen's comments about her father.

         Two days later, Richard Asinof published an article on his website-based newsletter, ConvergenceRI, titled "Heroin, sexual abuse, prison, methadone, and the promise of recovery." Mr. Asinof's article discussed both the Providence Journal's article that reported on the press event and the op-ed piece by the governor and drug czar. The relevant portions of Mr. Asinof's article are replicated below:

One of the most telling moments in the presentation came when the first mother, Crystal Olsen, told the story of how she became a heroin addict. Her father, a heroin addict, shot her up when she was just 14, and then forced her to become a prostitute to support his habit.
***
Why exclude that part of Olsen's story about her father's abuse from the [op-ed] column?
If you don't talk about it or acknowledge it in a truthful fashion, does it get swept under the rug as an inconvenient fact?
Where were the authorities-from school, from the police, from the community-who somehow failed to protect a girl of 14 from being turned out on the ...

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