Truth is not always a defense to defamation claims in Virginia. Sometimes a statement that is literally true will nevertheless convey an implied message with defamatory meaning. Virginia thus recognizes claims for defamation by implication in addition to claims for libel and slander made expressly. The latest case to illustrate this principle is Cameron M. Jackson v. Liberty University, currently pending in the Western District of Virginia federal court.

The facts, according to the original complaint, are essentially as follows. Cameron Jackson is a former student and football player at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sarah Browning was on the university’s swim team. Jackson and Browning had been involved in a “casual sexual relationship” for several months. At an off-campus party in August 2015, Browning approached several members of the football team (including Jackson) and performed oral sex on them. Later that night, Jackson and Browning engaged in consensual intercourse in the living room of a friend’s apartment, where others could and did see them.

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“SLAPP” suits are lawsuits brought primarily for the purpose of stifling criticism or intimidating those with opposing views by forcing them to incur legal-defense costs. (SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”). The lawsuits are often disguised as defamation actions but generally have as their true purpose a desire to silence speech deemed undesirable (regardless of whether the speech is truthful). Many states have passed anti-SLAPP laws designed to turn the tables by requiring plaintiffs who bring such suits to reimburse the defendant for legal fees incurred in fighting off the action. Virginia enacted its anti-SLAPP statute only recently–the latest amendments, which allow the recovery of attorneys’ fees for the first time, became effective July 1, 2017. Consequently, not a lot is known about how the courts will interpret and apply its terms. Its language differs markedly from the anti-SLAPP laws in other states, so the Virginia courts are going to have to blaze new territory in deciding how to apply the new law.

One big question the courts are going to have to decide: does Virginia’s new anti-SLAPP law apply to consumer reviews? In the past, defamation actions tended to be brought primarily against newspapers. But now we have the Internet, where anyone can be a publisher of content, and courts are becoming increasingly clogged with defamations brought against consumers by businesses offended by negative reviews posted to Yelp, Angie’s List, or some other consumer-review site. Concerned about studies such as the one by Harvard Business School concluding that a difference of just a single star on Yelp can affect business revenues by nearly 10%, many businesses respond very aggressively to consumers who post negative reviews that bring down their average rating, sometimes resorting to litigation. Such businesses need to be reminded, however, that the First Amendment protects consumers’ right to express their personal views, no matter how negative or harmful they may be. So is this a situation where the new anti-SLAPP law might be applied?

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Defamation Law 101 teaches that expressions of opinion are protected by the First Amendment and are not actionable in court. To bring a successful defamation suit, you’ll need to prove that someone made a false statement of fact about you. If that person merely expressed his or her personal opinion, the law of defamation will not provide a remedy, no matter how unfavorable the opinion is or how harshly it was expressed. Distinguishing assertions of fact from expressions of opinion, however, is not always an easy task. Smart lawyers and even judges will frequently disagree with each other on whether a particular statement is “fact” or “opinion”.

In theory, the differences are clear. A statement of fact is one that contains an assertion capable of being proven true or false. Statements of opinion are those that can’t be proven true or false because they depend on the speaker’s personal, subjective viewpoint. A recent Virginia case illustrates the difficulties that come with applying this test to real-world situations.

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Revenge porn is generally defined as a form of online harassment in which sexually explicit photographs or videos of another individual (usually a former partner) are either taken or shared with others without the consent of the person shown in the images. Perceived “revenge” is sometimes the motive, but not always. Sometimes images are circulated merely for titillation or profit. For this reason, some prefer to use terms like “nonconsensual pornography” or “sexual cyberharassment.” Whatever you call it, if images are shared without the consent of the subject, the results can be devastating to victims and can lead to public degradation, social isolation, and professional humiliation.

Revenge porn laws differ from state to state. Virginia law allows victims to sue for damages and reimbursement of attorneys fees, and makes several forms of revenge porn punishable as a crime. Virginia law is not as tough on revenge porn as some other states, however. In Virginia, the dissemination of nude photos taken with the subject’s consent (e.g., selfies) will generally not be punishable under Virginia’s revenge-porn statutes absent an intent to coerce, harass, or intimidate. So while motive usually doesn’t matter much from the perspective of the victim, it can make all the difference in terms of legal remedies available.

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False police reports are privileged against defamation claims. But the precise nature of that privilege is not always clear. Is it a qualified privilege, subject to being lost through abuse or bad faith, or is it an absolute immunity that insulates all statements to police against defamation claims no matter the intentions of the speaker? The distinction can make all the difference in cases where reports are made to the police not for the purpose of actually reporting crime, or to enforce obedience to the law, or to see that guilty people are punished, but for the purpose of harassing another individual. The nature of the privilege for defamatory statements made to the police will generally depend on the context and timing in which the statements at issue were made.

In Virginia, reports to the police enjoy at least conditional protection. The uncertainty lies in whether that protection can be elevated to “absolute” status. A qualified privilege exists where a communication is made in good faith, on a subject in which the communicating party has an interest or owes a duty, to a party who has a corresponding interest or duty. Citizens are generally thought to have an interest, if not a duty, in keeping the streets safe by identifying potential criminals to the police, and the police obviously have a corresponding interest in receiving that information, so statements made to the police meet the basic test for qualified privilege. (See also Marsh v. Commercial & Sav. Bank of Winchester, 265 F. Supp. 614, 621 (W.D. Va. 1967) (finding statements made by bank tellers to the police were protected by qualified privilege)).

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Suppose you live in Virginia and have been defamed on Facebook or Twitter by someone who lives in another state on the other side of the country. Can you file a lawsuit in Virginia, or do you have to sue in the state of the defendant’s residence? Many have tried to sue distant tortfeasors in Virginia on the theory that social-media posts can be read all over the world (including Virginia) and that the defendant knew his defamatory statements would cause harm to a person located in Virginia, but these lawsuits rarely succeed. It has become clear that to sue a person in Virginia in cases of Internet defamation, courts want to see a purposeful targeting of Virginia readers. Merely issuing a statement published to the entire world is not enough.

The relevant legal concept is that of “specific personal jurisdiction.” The court needs to have power to issue a judgment over another person, and to do so consistent with the United State Constitution, specific (or general) personal jurisdiction must be found to exist. In essence, the question is whether the defendant maintains sufficient “minimum contacts” with Virginia so a lawsuit filed against that person in Virginia would not offend “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” The general idea is that it would not be fair to hale someone to court on the other side of the country if that person had no meaningful connections with that other state. Posting something on Facebook does not connect a person in any meaningful way with every state in the country.

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If a statement claimed to be defamatory is substantially true (even if partially inaccurate), Virginia courts will generally not allow offended parties to bring defamation actions based on the minor inaccuracies. If the damaging aspect of the statement–the part that tends to affect one’s reputation–is substantially true, small factual errors that may exist in the less-important details are deemed insufficient to support a defamation action under the so-called “substantial truth doctrine.” In the Katie Couric defamation case I wrote about back in September, an interesting question arose: is a non-responsive or evasive answer to a question substantially the same thing as sitting in complete silence in response to that question? Judge Gibney thought so, and recently dismissed the case based in part on that reasoning. I would be surprised if that ruling gets upheld on appeal, though it may not ultimately make a difference to the outcome of the case.

Let’s recap briefly what the case is about. Katie Couric produced a documentary on gun violence called Under the Gun. Under the Gun portrays firearms as a serious social problem and advocates in favor of gun control. Ostensibly in an effort to show both sides of the gun-control debate, she invited members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights organization, to be interviewed on camera. There is a scene in the film where she asks the VCDL group the following pointed question: “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” It’s a question often asked by gun-control advocates, and a question most gun-rights advocates are comfortable answering. But in Couric’s film, the responses shown on camera amount to what appears to be bewildered and uncomfortable silence. When the camera cuts away, viewers are left with the impression that the VCDL members had never considered the question before and were unable to come up with a single answer to it.

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As a small-business owner, can you sue for defamation personally if someone makes a false and damaging statement about your business? The answer will depend to a large degree on the size of your company and the extent to which the public views you and your company as one and the same. The determining factor is whether a false statement made only about your business (and not about you personally) nevertheless tends to degrade your personal reputation in the eyes and ears of those who hear the statement. If you own XYZ Company and XYZ has 1000 employees, a statement falsely accusing XYZ of producing a defective widget will not necessarily lower you as an individual in the eyes of the community. On the other hand, if XYZ Company is a single-member LLC with no employees or contractors on staff, the very same statement might be deemed to have the “sufficient nexus” that Virginia law requires to make the statement actionable by the business owner individually (as well as the business itself).

Under Virginia law, defamation requires (1) publication of (2) an actionable statement with (3) the requisite intent. What we’re talking about here is the second element of that test, which requires among other things that the statement at issue be “of and concerning” the person or entity bringing the lawsuit. To win a defamation case, you have to show that the statement at issue was intended to refer to you specifically and people who heard it understood it as such. A preliminary question for the judge is whether a reasonable person hearing or reading the statement could conclude that the defamatory statement was essentially “about” the plaintiff, even if the plaintiff is not mentioned by name in the statement.

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Hypersensitivity is not a desirable personality trait if you are a plaintiff in a defamation case. If you’re the type of person who tends to jump to conclusions about an author’s intent when reading certain statements made about you on social media, you should think twice (and consult with a defamation attorney) before rushing off to sue the writer for libel. This is because when a judge is faced with the task of deciding whether to allow a defamation claim to go forward, one of the preliminary rulings he or she must make is about how a reasonable reader would interpret the words claimed to be defamatory. If most people reading the article or social-media post would not draw the same defamatory conclusions that you are drawing when they read the statement, your case will likely be dismissed at the outset.

When a statement is clear, straightforward and unambiguous, interpretation usually won’t be an issue. But sometimes even the most well-intentioned writer can express thoughts in a manner that implies hidden meaning to at least some readers. Defamation liability can arise out of a statement that is literally true if a defamatory meaning can be reasonably inferred. Key to this principle, however, is that the inferred meaning must be reasonable; it cannot extend beyond the “ordinary and common acceptation of the words used.” A hypersensitive plaintiff who resorts to twisted logic or an overly-technical interpretation to reach a defamatory understanding from non-defamatory words will not be successful in court. Before allowing a case to go to a jury, the judge will examine the circumstances surrounding the making and publication of the statement and decide whether innuendo arising from the statement could cause a reasonable reader to infer a defamatory message.

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As I have discussed on this blog before on several occasions, a literally true statement can give rise to a defamation claim if a reasonable listener would infer a defamatory message from the words (and images) used, even if the words themselves do not convey that defamatory meaning directly. If innuendo would cause a reasonable listener to “read between the lines” and infer that the speaker is communicating a defamatory statement about another individual despite the use of words that are not themselves false or defamatory, that can be sufficient to state a viable claim. This is the concept of “defamation by implication.” Earlier this month, in a case brought by a convicted felon, Judge Gibney of the Eastern District of Virginia permitted such a case to proceed to trial.

The case arose out of this CBS 6 broadcast in the Richmond area. Watch it carefully. Did you see or hear anything that would likely cause damage to someone’s reputation? Well, someone named Angela Engle Horne thought so, and so she sued the station for defamation, claiming that her reputation had been damaged by the story. Here’s what happened, according to papers filed in the case:

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