Glenn Funk's Suit Against Phil Williams Enters Year Two

District Attorney Glenn Funk and Newschannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams

For more than a year, we’ve watched District Attorney Glenn Funk pursue a defamation case against Phil Williams, reporter for WTVF-TV, NewsChannel 5.

Beginning with an initial complaint that was really a press release disguised as a lawsuit, and continuing through Funk’s attorneys’ latest arguments, this whole affair has been ridiculous and beneath the office Funk won in 2014.

Funk is seeking to depose Williams ahead of the veteran investigative reporter’s motion to dismiss this whole case. That deposition would likely dig into any and all sources and reporting methods that Williams used in reporting a story from February 2016 regarding less-than-savory details from developer David Chase’s defamation suit against Lauren Bull, his ex-girlfriend who accused him of assault.

The fact of the matter is that Funk’s lawyers know exactly how Williams reported the story: Under oath in two courtrooms, attorney Brian Manookian said he was the source of text and deposition leaks to Williams. NewsChannel 5 and others, including the Scene, reported that the Chases believed they were in the middle of a shakedown, and that political consultant and PR professional Bill Fletcher sought $2 million dollars to make everything go away. Fletcher denied the allegations strongly to the Scene. NewsChannel 5 raised the possibility that the money was for Funk. From the story:

“Did you get the sense that Bill Fletcher’s request for $2 million was to give to Glenn Funk?” the attorney asked.

“I did not get that — that feeling,” Sandy Chase answered. “I didn’t know what to think of it.”

But David Chase had harsh words for Funk after learning about the $2 million request, texting his mother: “After today, Glenn Funk can rot in prison with everyone else.”

All of this is contained in court files in the Chase defamation case — and that’s where we are today. Williams and his attorneys have relied on the fair-report privilege — the ability for media to quote from public documents, even defamatory ones, if the reporting is done accurately from the source — as one basis for getting the case dismissed. But Funk is seeking, rather extraordinarily, to get a standard of actual malice applied here, meaning that whether or not Williams had knowledge that the information may be false comes into play.

Unfortunately, Judge William Acree, brought in from West Tennessee because all the local judges recused themselves, bought the argument. And so Williams’ attorneys have taken the unusual but necessary step of seeking an appeal on this issue before the court goes any further.

This would all just be interesting legal fisticuffs if the implications for the press weren’t so grave.

First, by opening up Williams to being deposed for reporting off of documents in a public court, Funk is potentially opening up all media to a wide range of lawsuits for fairly mundane reasons. The fair-report privilege allows reporters to do things like sit in Metro Council meetings and report what people say, or use public documents as the basis for a story. It’s vital to what we do.

Second, Funk is on a fishing expedition. His request for discovery in this case isn’t just for Williams and whomever might be considered sources — it’s for everyone Williams talked to prior to the publication of his stories. By granting this, Judge Acree has given Funk a license to go rifling through Williams’ Rolodex.

Finally, and most importantly, reporters in Tennessee have a newsgathering privilege by statute that allows them to protect sources and how they gather news. It’s the state’s shield law, and it’s crucial to being able to do our jobs. Funk’s lawyers have now argued that court filings, not just people, are “sources,” an interpretation that has never been true in Tennessee before. The shield law has an exception for defamation — i.e., you can’t use it if your defense is based on the source of the information (that is, you can’t defame someone and then just say, “Nope, the source is confidential” to make a libel suit go away). But that exception shouldn’t come into play here — and the Williams attorneys have never used it as a defense — because everyone knows the Chase depositions are the source. By pursuing this line of argument, Funk is now attempting to move case law toward an area that will make it more risky for reporters to use public documents. This is a way to punish reporters for reporting what goes on in court.

Judge Acree agreed with Funk’s attorneys in a Jan. 13 ruling, which has prompted the quick appeal. We’ll find out in a few weeks if it will be allowed. 

At some point, the people who elected Glenn Funk need to start asking him if all of this is a good use of his time; it doesn’t really matter that he’s paying for his lawyers himself. 

Funk may indeed be an excellent DA, but his vendetta against Williams is unseemly. After Williams broke the story on the sweetheart deal Funk got from the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference before being sworn in — he eventually returned the retirement and insurance benefits — no one would fault them for not being drinking buddies. But this is wrong.

The longer this suit goes on, the more it distracts from Funk’s duties as Nashville’s chief law enforcement officer. He should stop trying to stretch libel laws to fit his case and concentrate on putting criminals behind bars.

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