Even without winking and nudging, defamatory statements can be communicated by innuendo just as clearly as they can by express statements. If you’re going to publish a “hit piece” about another person designed to damage that person’s reputation, you can’t escape defamation liability simply by being careful not to state directly what you are unambiguously expressing indirectly. Libel through innuendo does not enjoy any greater protection under the First Amendment than blatant libel. Defamation may be implied when an author intends for his audience to “read between the lines” while being careful not to make an express statement that is literally false.
I’ve written about defamation by implication before, but one case I haven’t yet covered is Steven D. Parker v. Lancaster County School Board, pending in the Richmond Division of the Eastern District of Virginia. The basic facts, according to the November 4th opinion, are essentially as follows. Dr. Parker is the former Superintendent of Lancaster County Public Schools. He claims he received consistently excellent performance reviews during his tenure. Towards the end of his contract, the School Board Chair instructed Dr. Parker to hire more African-American administrators, even if they were less qualified than white applicants. Dr. Parker pushed back against this idea as he considered it an ill-advised “race-based hiring quota.” The School Board ultimately decided not to renew Dr. Parker’s contract, for reasons Dr. Parker alleges have to do with his refusal to provide preferential treatment to unqualified African-American job applicants and his participation in a racial-harassment investigation into one of the Board members.