The New Hampshire Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that pits the privacy rights of individuals against the rights of a free press, with a reality television show about state Fish and Game officers serving as the backdrop.
The case involves a New Durham couple, Dale and Anne Mansfield, who briefly appeared in a segment of the Animal Planet show North Woods Law. In a 2018 segment entitled "Weed Whackers," camera crews follow a Fish and Game conservation officer as he attempts to chase down whoever is responsible for growing a small patch of marijuana.
During the broadcast, a conservation officer interviews the Mansfields, who live close to where the marijuana was discovered. Later in the episode, officers arrest another suspect.
The Mansfields’ faces were pixelated during the broadcast, but they allege neighbors and other acquaintances were still able to easily identify them after the episode aired. They also claim they didn’t give the show permission to film them, and were told the footage wouldn’t be used on air.
In a lawsuit filed against both the show and the conservation officer, the couple is seeking damages, claiming the episode cast them in a “false light” by connecting them to the illicit drug trade.
During arguments Tuesday, a lawyer for the show’s production companies countered that the episode clearly shows that the Mansfields were innocent of any connections to the marijuana operation and that the case should be dismissed.
“What’s alleged is there is an implication that the subjects here are criminals or engaged in criminal conduct,” said attorney Michael Lewis. "That’s not borne out by the broadcast itself."
Lewis told the court’s four justices that ruling against his clients could have a “chilling effect” on a free press and other First Amendment protections.
An attorney for the Mansfields, however, questioned whether a reality television program that uses suspense and clever edits to attract an audience could be viewed as a member of the media, and not simply as an entertainment venture.
“If you don’t protect against a media company secretly airing footage of you that makes people you know think that you might be involved in the drug trade, then you don’t really have any protections,” said attorney Timothy Ayer.
He told the justices that the show’s portrayal of the couple created a false impression and that North Woods Law made little effort in shielding their identities.
A lower court judge dismissed all but one of the Mansfields’ claims, allowing the “false light” argument to proceed.