A federal court in Massachusetts has dismissed a defamation case against Barbara Walters brought by a woman claiming to be the former lesbian lover of Walters’ daughter. In Walters autobiography, Audition: A Memoir, she refers to the woman, Nancy Shay, by first name only in a two-sentence statement. Walters wrote that “Nancy” was kicked out of high school for “bad behavior” after being “found in a nearby town high on God-knows-what” with Walters’ daughter. Shay did not deny being suspended from school but claimed the statements were defamatory because they falsely portrayed her as a user of illicit drugs. The court found the allegations were insufficient to state a claim for defamation and dismissed the case.
In Massachusetts, as in Virginia and every other state, there can be no defamation liability without “fault” on behalf of the defendant. For private plaintiffs (as opposed to public figures), this requires (at a minimum) an allegation that the defendant acted negligently with respect to determining the truth. Moreover, a statement is incapable of defamatory meaning unless it would tend to hold the plaintiff up to scorn, hatred, ridicule or contempt “in the minds of any considerable and respectable segment in the community.” In other words, a statement will not be considered defamatory if only a very small group of persons would view it as derogatory.
In her brief, Shay argued that Walters was at fault for making a false statement as to the reason for her suspension and that the statement damaged her reputation amongst the former faculty and students of the high school from which she was suspended. Alternatively, Shay suggested that, even if the statement that she was expelled for “bad behavior” was true, the allusion to drug use was made maliciously.
The court found that Shay failed to make any showing of fault beyond her self-serving and conclusory allegations. It found further that the segment of the population who would read the statements in Walters’ book and draw negative inferences from them about Shay was too small to sustain a finding of defamatory meaning. Those few people who would recognize the reference to “Nancy” in Audition as alluding to Shay would likely also know the real circumstances of the situation and would not have their opinions of Shay influenced by the memoir, the court found.