Law professor says IMPD officer’s lawsuit against NFL will be uphill fight

Crime in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS — The IMPD officer who shot Dreasjon Reed is suing the National Football League for defamation over the league’s social justice campaign.

The 32-page lawsuit claims the NFL caused officer De’joure Mercer severe emotional distress and believes the league should be held accountable, but one local expert on libel law says the case will be very tough to win.

In September and December of 2020, the league mentioned the Reed case as part of an online social justice campaign called “Inspire Change.” It was intended to honor victims of police misconduct and systemic racism but is now the focus of a civil lawsuit.

NFL tweet from December 2020

“No one has a problem with racial equality or social justice, but in an effort to do that, the NFL dramatically got their facts wrong,” said attorney Guy Relford.

Relford claims the NFL acted with negligence and reckless disregard for the truth about Reed’s death.

Reed was killed by officer Mercer following a high-speed chase in May 2020.

Prior to the shooting, Mercer was honored by IMPD as the northwest district officer of the year.

Officer Mercer receiving an award from IMPD chief Randal Taylor

“De’Joure Mercer, the officer involved in that shooting, is a Black man. He is also a hero and defended himself. He defended his community, and for that he was rewarded by being accused by the NFL of police misconduct and racism,” said Relford.

“The (v)ideo gives rise to the inference, implication, and imputation that Mercer committed occupational misconduct and even criminal acts during the May 6 encounter with Reed, similar to that which were inflicted upon George Floyd,” Mercer’s lawyer writes in the complaint. “This inference, implication, and imputation is false because Mercer committed no such acts.”

While Reed’s death made national headlines and sparked protests locally, last November, a grand jury and Indiana State Police cleared officer Mercer of any wrong doing.

“All that was available to the NFL, and they still continued with the campaign accusing this officer, this heroic officer, of police misconduct and racism. That’s unforgivable, and it had an effect on him, and that’s what this lawsuit is all about,” said Relford.

“From just what I’ve read, it’s a challenging case for the officer, I think,” said IU professor of libel law Anthony Fargo.

Fargo expects the libel case will face an uphill fight because police are considered public officers, and officer Mercer was never directly named by the NFL.

“He’ll have to prove the NFL knew what it was saying about him was false and what was being said was about him,” said Fargo.

Fargo says the courts have also made it difficult to prevail in libel cases to avoid a “chilling effect” on free speech.

“In American society, we should have un-inhibited robust debate about public issues,” said Fargo. “If the courts err, they err on the side of protecting speech.”

We did reach out to the NFL but didn’t hear back.

IMPD also declined to comment on the lawsuit but confirmed officer Mercer is still employed as an officer. 

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