When a person’s reputation is attacked, sometimes what stings the most is not so much what was actually said but what was implied. Virginia recognizes defamation by implication claims and permits plaintiffs to recover when (1) the defendant makes a statement designed and intended to imply certain false and defamatory facts, (2) in a context that would cause reasonable listeners or readers to infer the intended defamatory meaning, and (3) the plaintiff suffers harm as a result. (See Pendleton v. Newsome, 290 Va. 162, 175 (2015)). To be actionable, however, the inference urged by the plaintiff must be a reasonable one; if the judge has to squint her eyes and stretch her imagination to interpret the defendant’s statement the way the plaintiff is interpreting it, she will likely dismiss the case at the outset. That’s what happened earlier this year in a case brought against Ferrum College by its former athletic director.
As a general rule, statements of opinion are not actionable as defamation. It’s also true, however, that indirect implications from a statement can form the basis of a defamation claim. When a person prefaces a statement with “in my opinion” or “I firmly believe,” it has no effect on whether the statement carries defamatory implications or innuendo. If a speaker expresses an opinion under circumstances that would cause a reasonable listener to understand that the opinion is based on the speaker’s knowledge of undisclosed facts, that “opinion” can be treated as an implied assertion of fact. And if that factual assertion isn’t true and conveys a defamatory meaning about someone, defamation liability may arise.
This isn’t really an exception to the rule that you can’t sue someone for defamation based on an expression of opinion. Pure opinions remain protected by the First Amendment. The question is whether a reasonable listener or reader would infer from a particular statement (whether couched as an opinion or otherwise) that the speaker or writer knows certain facts, unknown to the audience, which support the opinion and are detrimental to the reputation of the person about whom the statement is made. This is going to depend heavily on context, the identity of the parties, and the specific words used.
In Virginia, the right of the media to report freely and fairly on the operations of the government is sacrosanct. Reporters and news organizations that report on government activities are shielded from defamation claims by a “fair report privilege” that applies so long as the publication is a “fair and substantially correct statement of the transcript of the record.” (See Alexandria Gazette Corp. v. West, 198 Va. 154 (1956)). The privilege protects “press reports of official actions or proceedings, so long as the report was accurate and either complete or fairly abridged.” (See Chapin v. Knight-Ridder, Inc., 993 F.3d 1087, 1097 (4th Cir. 1993)). Everyone has a right of access to public records, and the fair report privilege makes it easier for the media to communicate the information contained therein to the public so that the government can be held accountable.
Some courts view the fair report privilege or “reporter’s privilege” as an exception to the republication rule. Normally, a person who repeats a defamatory statement is liable for republishing it, just as if he or she were the original speaker. Where a reporter repeats a defamatory statement made at a proceeding covered by the fair report privilege, however, no republication liability will attach provided the report is a fair characterization of what was originally said. If a media account of a government proceeding is fair and accurate, the publisher will be protected even if statements made at the proceeding and repeated in the publication were false and defamatory.
Most of the attention being paid to Johnny Depp’s defamation suit against Amber Heard has been about the fact he brought it in Virginia rather than in California where both of them live. Most speculate Depp chose Virginia due to the fact its anti-SLAPP law is more hospitable to celebrities and public figures than California’s. He has already been rewarded with a ruling permitting the case to remain in Virginia even if all potential witnesses and evidence are located in California. If that ruling wasn’t enough to lead to the supposition that this case is destined to be decided by the Virginia Supreme Court rather than the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, we now have another interesting ruling in an area in which there’s not a lot of controlling precedent: what it takes to “republish” a defamatory statement and thereby re-start the running of the one-year statute of limitations. That last time Virginia saw a controversial ruling involving the republication doctrine was in Eramo v. Rolling Stone, which was settled shortly after it was appealed. If I had to guess, I would predict that the next Virginia Supreme Court opinion dealing with republication is going to be Depp v. Heard (or, rather, Heard v. Depp).
For those not already aware, Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, for an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post at the end of 2018. The article, entitled “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” does not identify Depp by name but, according to Depp, nevertheless implied to readers that Depp is a domestic abuser. In particular, he took issue with the following statements: (1) “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath.” (2) “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” (3) “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” and (4) “I write this as a woman who had to change my phone number weekly because I was getting death threats. For months, I rarely left my apartment, and when I did, I was pursued by camera drones and photographers on foot, on motorcycles and in cars. Tabloid outlets that posted pictures of me spun them in a negative light. I felt as though I was on trial in the court of public opinion—and my life and livelihood depended on myriad judgments far beyond my control.” The Fairfax County Circuit Court held that with the exception of statement #4, these statements were sufficient to imply to readers that Depp is a domestic abuser, considering the couple’s highly publicized divorce in 2016. Key to this conclusion was the court’s determination that the 2018 op-ed amounted to a republication of Heard’s direct accusations against Depp back in 2016.
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.
Defamatory statements falling into certain categories deemed particularly damaging to one’s reputation are considered defamatory “per se” and may be compensable even without proof of reputational harm. False accusations of morally reprehensible criminal activity are a common example of this “per se” form of defamation. As the Virginia Supreme Court has put it, defamatory words will be considered defamation per se when they “impute to a person the commission of some criminal offense involving moral turpitude, for which the party, if the charge is true, may be indicted and punished.” (Tronfeld v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 272 Va. 709, 713 (2006)). One thing that remains unclear, however, is the degree of specificity required before a statement will be deemed defamatory per se. Must the statement describe specific conduct, or is it sufficient to merely characterize unspecified conduct as criminal in nature? Must a specific criminal offense be identified? There doesn’t yet seem to be a consensus on these questions. The latest Virginia court to deal with them allowed a case to proceed on the basis of very vague allegations.
Here’s what happened in the case of Frances J. Belisle v. Laura Baxter, according to the opinion. Frances brought two counts of defamation per se against Baxter, a police officer with the City of Hopewell, arising out of her arrest at Hopewell High School for disorderly conduct. The police were at the high school at its request to provide security at a school event in which Frances’ minor daughters were participants. They set up a barricade of tables to form a controlled entry point to a hallway in the school. When Frances approached the tables with her 9-year-old daughter, seeking to escort her to a classroom, she was initially told that only the daughter could enter. The police eventually decided it was OK to allow the parent to come in, but when Frances later observed Officer Baxter stopping another mother from entering the hallway, she decided to intervene.
Whether a particular tort is deemed intentional, as opposed to merely negligent, can have far-reaching implications. Intentional torts and negligent torts are treated very differently when it comes to things like insurance coverage, sovereign immunity, and recoverable damages. Defamation is one of those torts that cannot be easily categorized, as the degree of intent required to hold someone liable for defamation differs depending on the circumstances. If the plaintiff is a public figure, he will have to prove the defendant intentionally made a false statement, or at least made the statement with a high degree of awareness of its probably falsity. Private-figure plaintiffs, on the other hand, need only demonstrate a level of culpability akin to negligence, a standard that does not require a showing of intent. States differ in their treatment of defamation-by-implication cases, but in Virginia, the speaker must have intended to make a defamatory implication to be held liable.
Some would argue that defamation by implication should only be deemed an intentional tort in those cases where malice is required. Most court opinions involving claims of implied defamation focus solely on whether the statement implies a defamatory meaning to the reasonable listener or reader, without regard to the defendant’s subjective intent in making the statement. According to Section 563 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, “the meaning of a communication is that which the recipient correctly, or mistakenly but reasonably, understands that it was intended to express.” If the requisite level of intent for defamation liability is mere negligence (the usual standard in cases not involving public figures or officials), it might make sense to hold the speaker liable for a reasonable defamatory inference even if that inference was not the intended meaning. Since the Virginia Supreme Court decided Pendleton v. Newsome, however, it has been clear that plaintiffs seeking to hold defendants liable based on a defamatory implication must demonstrate not only a defamatory inference but that the defendant intended to communicate that inference.
When the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights organization, sued Katie Couric for defamation back in 2016, the two big issues from a legal perspective were (1) whether the edited video of the VCDL members conveyed a false statement of fact, and (2) if so, whether that false message carried a defamatory meaning sufficient to support a cause of action for defamation. When I first wrote about the case the day after it was filed, I devoted most of my blog post to the issue of whether video and still images can support the falsity element of a defamation claim (they can). Now that the case has completed its journey through the legal system, I thought I would revisit this case, this time focusing more on the second issue: that of defamatory meaning.
At the trial level, the court answered both questions in the negative, finding that the video was “not false” and that, even if it were false, it lacked sufficient defamatory meaning to survive a motion to dismiss. On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the Court of Appeals held as I predicted it might: it overruled the trial court’s determination that the video was not false, but nevertheless affirmed the dismissal of the case because that falsity did not carry defamatory meaning sufficient to state a claim for defamation under Virginia law. What surprised me about the ruling was not the result but how little was written in the opinion about whether the law should recognize a defamation claim based on a false statement deemed despicable by a large segment of society, but not by the majority of Americans. This seemed to be a good case for the court to grapple with that issue, as the degree to which VCDL members’ reputations suffered among viewers of the documentary likely varied according to viewers’ opinions on gun ownership. Instead, the court held (in a footnote, no less) that defamatory meaning should be measured according to “the common estimation of mankind” without consideration of variations that may exist among smaller segments of the populace.
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.
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.