CONCORD — The New Hampshire Supreme Court on Friday sided with the “North Woods Law” television show in a case brought by a couple who ended up on a 2018 episode against their wishes.
In a unanimous four-page ruling, justices said the show did not place Dale and Anne Mansfield in false light, something the New Durham residents would have to prove to bring a successful invasion-of-privacy case against Engel Entertainment and Discovery Communications LLC.
The reality TV show is in its 15th season on the Animal Planet channel. It focuses on the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department as its officers enforce conservation laws, encounter animals in strange circumstances and enforce laws in rural areas of the state.
The Mansfields appeared in a 2018 show titled “Weed Whackers” and were questioned about a patch of marijuana plants growing near their home. The retirees never signed releases that producers usually obtain before people appear on a broadcast. Producers pixilated their images and included them in the broadcast when a New Hampshire Fish and Game officer and local police officer interviewed them.
The Mansfields claimed that friends and family recognized them, their privacy was invaded and they were cast in a false light.
But the Supreme Court rejected the false light claim. The justices noted that the conservation officer said to the camera “this isn’t our guy” after the interview with the Mansfields. The show later shows officers matching up a surveillance photo with Mansfields’ neighbor, and the reports that the neighbor was eventually arrested and charged with the crime.
“The episode placed responsibility for the illegal activity squarely on the neighbor, rather than the (Mansfields),” the decision reads.
The Mansfields’ lawyer, Larry Vogelman, said his clients are disappointed but did not comment further.
During oral arguments this past fall, the lawyer for the production companies said the releases are only backup legal protection, and the First Amendment gives them the right to broadcast episodes.
Lawyers for the Mansfields said North Woods Law is not a news organization, which is dedicated to reporting facts, but an entertainment company that sells tension.
In the four-page order, the justices did not delve into the First Amendment issues. Rather, they ruled that the claim was not adequate.
“Based upon the allegations in the complaint, as well as the version of the episode contained in the record, we conclude that the episode did not falsely imply that the plaintiffs were involved in illegal drug activity,” they ruled.
The North Woods appeal to the Supreme Court challenged a pretrial ruling in the case. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court, but Judge Mark Howard had already dismissed the Mansfields’ case on all grounds except privacy invasion.
The decision is the latest in a series of Supreme Court rulings that side with media. Last year, the court threw out a 27-year-old precedent and said that news organizations and the public should have access to personnel files of public employees, including police, if they showed good reason.
The court later rejected calls to keep secret a list of some 300 police officers with credibility problems. That case was also remanded for further findings.