Following a report from Stadium reporter Brett McMurphy about former Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith directing a racial slur at former Buckeye wideout Trevon Grimes during an altercation in practice, head coach Urban Meyer said legal action might be taken.
"Certainly looking into legal action,” Meyer said on the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday. “I just don’t know how that’s allowed. I don’t understand the rules and the laws of the land that say that you can just accuse people of something that did not happen."
He did not clarify whether he meant either he or Ohio State is determining whether legal action can or should be pursued.
Ryan Stubenrauch, an Ohio lawyer who does public records training, said Meyer is more likely than Ohio State to pursue legal action because he is the one cast in “bad light” that damages him and is “injured” by the claims. Both Stubenrauch and Christopher Hollon, an Ohio lawyer who is the current chair of the Ohio State Bar Association's media law committee, said Meyer would likely file a defamation claim if he opts to take the legal route.
However, both Stubenrauch and Hollon agree that it’s unlikely Meyer would win since he would need to prove McMurphy knowingly printed falsehoods.
“For public figures, politicians, sports coaches, figures that are in the media all the time, we have a heightened bar and I have to prove that you either knew for certain it was false, I have to prove that you were 100 percent lying, or I have to prove that you recklessly disregarded information that suggested it was false,” Stubenrauch said. “So, that's kind of like a fancy lawyer way of saying either you knew it was false or you damn well should have. That's probably the colloquial way to explain defamation.”
Stubenrauch said there’s a chance Meyer could win a lawsuit if he could “prove McMurphy published this knowing, or recklessly not knowing, that it was false,” though that’s difficult to do.
“Urban Meyer would likely be seen as a public figure by a court,” Hollon said. “That means that to prevail on a defamation claim, he would have to show that Brett McMurphy acted with actual malice toward him. The way that the courts interpret actual malice is that Brett McMurphy would have to know what he reported was false or he would have had to acted in, what the courts call, reckless disregard for the truth, meaning he didn't care what was true or not, he just threw it up there. That's a very high burden on the plaintiff to show a defamation claim.”
Could McMurphy be held liable for someone else lying to him?
“Only if he knew that that person was lying or really, really, really should have known, like I said damn well ought to have known, that he was lying,” Stubenrauch said.
Hollon added: “A defamation claim can be brought against the speaker of the false statement and then also anyone who publishes that statement. In that case, when a media outlet reports on a defamatory comment that someone else said, both are potentially liable.”
Another legal option for Meyer could be to file an invasion of privacy claim or false light claim, Hollon said, but he believes the defamation claim would be more likely.
Not many public figures, such as Meyer, pursue defamation claims, Hollon said, and most claims aren’t successful.
“These lawsuits are not frequently brought because they are so difficult to prove,” Hollon said. “I would say that it's not very common for a public figure to prevail on a defamation claim.”
Many people mention lawsuits as threats or deterrents, which Stubenrauch said could “absolutely” be happening, though Meyer did not actively threaten a lawsuit. He simply mentioned it amid a larger answer to a question, and did not reference legal action for the remainder of the teleconference.
It would be extremely rare for a college football head coach to sue a reporter.
“If I were a betting man, yes, I would say that no one will get sued and this is just posturing,” Stubenrauch said.
Though Stubenrauch can’t say for sure whether either Meyer or Ohio State will decide to pursue legal action, he’s confident that both Meyer and Ohio State staunchly believe McMurphy’s report is exceedingly inaccurate.
“The forcefulness of the reaction from Urban, from Ohio State, from everybody, was sort of like a nuclear level that you would never do to any sort of reporter unless you were 100 percent certain they were lying and you thought that they had gone too far,” Stubenrauch said.