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Eye On Olympia

In the limelight with the Supremes, Part I…

Say you steal a garden hose to put out a house fire. Then I write a story about it — “Blog Reader Steals Hose” — and never mention the fire.

Is that defamation?

It’s true, certainly. Fair? No. But can a true story, by leaving out key details, be defamatory?

That’s the question that the state Supreme Court is being asked to decide.

In late 1998, Spokane TV journalist (and recent mayoral candidate) Tom Grant reported that a severely retarded man had been thrown out of a local store after asking if he could wash the store windows and get a piece of candy. The man, Glen Burson, was arrested and prosecuted for trespassing.

When the story aired, the store got a wave of angry calls.

Store owner Elliot Mohr sued Grant, saying Grant should have mentioned numerous previous problems the store had had with Burson. Among them: that Burson had allegedly threatened repeatedly to kill Mohr.

Mohr had refused Grant’s requests for an interview. But the store’s long history with Burson was readily available, Mohr says, in the court file and police records.

A Spokane trial court sided with Grant. A Spokane appeals court sided with Mohr.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in a special hearing in Yakima May 13.

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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