Articles Posted in Defamatory Meaning

The Internet is full of morons. If an Internet troll who clearly has no idea what he or she is talking about posts false statements on social media about another person, the effect on the reader is different than if the same statement had been written by an authoritative figure and circulated to the public in a formal news release. Readers would tend to believe the assertions made in the authority figure’s formal statement, and tend to dismiss the troll’s statement as nothing more than meaningless Internet noise. In actions for libel and slander, the perceived knowledgeability and credibility of the speaker plays an important role in the determination of whether defamatory meaning has been conveyed by a particular statement.

The Alex Jones lawsuit comes to mind. Alex Jones is the host of InfoWars and an extremely popular online conspiracy theorist. He has claimed that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was an elaborate hoax, complete with adult and child actors, invented by government-backed “gun grabbers.” Many of his followers apparently believed his claims and have been harassing the victims’ families. Recently, several of the families have filed defamation lawsuits against Jones, arguing that he “persistently perpetuated a monstrous, unspeakable lie: that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged, and that the families who lost loved ones that day are actors who faked their relatives’ deaths.”

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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to express one’s opinions without fear of defamation lawsuits or other punishment. If you had a bad experience at a local restaurant, you are free to post a negative review on Yelp, Google, or some other consumer-review site and tell the world exactly what you think of the place. The restaurant may not appreciate the effect of your review on its average “star rating,” but it won’t be able to sue you for defamation (not successfully, anyway) if all you did was express your constitutionally-protected opinions. But what are those, exactly?

Distinguishing opinions from statements of fact is not as simple as it sounds, and in many cases, judges and scholars will reach opposite conclusions. For example, a common accusation that gets thrown around a lot is “scam artist” or “scammer.” Is that a factual assertion or an opinion? It’s hard to say without knowing more context. Is the declarant using the term to accuse someone of being “grossly unfair” (an opinion) or is he saying that actual fraud is taking place? Suppose someone writes online that Gatorade’s marketing campaign is a “scam” because Gatorade doesn’t really quench thirst as well as plain water. Contrast that with a statement accusing a local accountant of scamming customers out of hundreds of dollars by manipulating their tax returns. To “scam” someone means different things in different contexts.

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For an untrue statement about a person to be actionable as libel or slander, it has to be defamatory in nature. I’ve written about defamatory meaning before, but basically what this means is that the statement has to be more harmful than a mere insult; rather, it must cast a person is such a negative light that people hearing or reading the statement would be deterred from associating or dealing with the person about whom the statement was made. A defamatory statement thus lowers its subject in the eyes of the community. But which community are we talking about? Who are these people in whose estimation one may be defamed? Suppose a person is falsely accused of having been discovered in possession of an assault rifle. Whom should we ask about whether that statement carries defamatory meaning, the National Rifle Association or the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence?

There’s not a whole lot of case law to answer this question. The position of the Restatement of Torts is that a “communication to be defamatory need not tend to prejudice the other in the eyes of everyone in the community or of all of his associates, nor even in the eyes of a majority of them. It is enough that the communication would tend to prejudice him in the eyes of a substantial and respectable minority of them.” (See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 559 cmt e). That seems to be the majority position in courts across the country, including Virginia, whether they express the principle in these terms or not.

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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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When suing for libel or slander in Virginia, it helps if you can make out a claim for that form of defamation known as defamation per se. If the judge agrees that your claim qualifies, he or she will instruct the jury to presume general damages and authorize it to award punitive damages even in the absence of compensatory damages. However, too often, plaintiffs place unneeded emphasis on trying to characterize their claim as defamation per se and overlook regular garden-variety defamation, known as defamation per quod. Defamation per quod can give rise to fairly substantial liability, as Rolling Stone found out when a former University of Virginia won $3 million based on a false portrayal of her in an article about rape on campus.

Defamatory words fall into the “per se” category if they: (1) 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; (2) impute that a person is infected with some contagious disease, where if the charge is true, it would exclude the party from society; (3) impute to a person unfitness to perform the duties of an office or employment of profit, or want of integrity in the discharge of the duties of such an office or employment; or (4) prejudice the plaintiff in his or her profession or trade. (See Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, 196 Va. 1, 7 (1954)).

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When I wrote about the elements of defamation back in 2013, I noted that one of the requirements for a successful defamation action is that the statement at issue be “defamatory in nature.” In other words, to be actionable, that statement must convey a defamatory meaning to the reader or listener; it cannot be merely insulting or provocative. What does it mean to be defamatory? The definition varies from state to state. In New York, a defamatory statement is one that exposes an individual “to public hatred, shame, obloquy, contumely, odium, contempt, ridicule, aversion, ostracism, degradation, or disgrace, or…induce[s] an evil opinion of one in the minds of right-thinking persons, and…deprives one of…confidence and friendly intercourse in society.” (See Celle v. Filipino Reporter Enterprises Inc., 209 F.3d 163, 177 (2d Cir. 2000)). Here in Virginia, defamatory words are those “tend[ing] so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” (See Schaecher v. Bouffault, 290 Va. 83 (2015)). Words that rise to this level have been said to carry the requisite degree of “defamatory sting.”

Regardless of which state’s definition is applied, statements that tend to expose another to hatred, ridicule, or contempt are generally considered defamatory in nature. Disparaging statements about another’s moral values, personal integrity, or financial standing may fall into this category. Note, however, that although cases often recite that being made to look “ridiculous” in the community is sufficient to convey defamatory meaning, defamatory meaning is just one element of a defamation action. The tort of defamation also requires a false statement of fact. Therefore, not every statement that tends to expose another to public ridicule will be actionable in court.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. They also say the camera doesn’t lie. Remember, though, that photographs and videos can be altered in a variety of different ways, and when the alteration conveys a false and defamatory impression, the manipulated images can be actionable in a court of law.

In the case filed yesterday against Katie Couric, what essentially happened is this: Couric is the Executive Producer of a documentary on gun violence called Under the Gun. She invited members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights organization, to be interviewed on camera. At one point in the film, she is shown asking the group this common question on the subject of background checks: “If there are no background checks for gun purchasers, how do you prevent felons or terrorists from purchasing a gun?” The various representatives of the VCDL sit in stunned silence and look away, as if they had never considered the question before. The camera then cuts away, leaving the viewer with the impression that none of the interviewees were able to come up with a single answer.

When U.S. News asked me last year to comment on Phi Kappa Psi’s plans for a defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone, I responded that one of the first obstacles the fraternity would have to overcome would be to persuade the court that the article was “of and concerning” PKP as an institution and that it was not just about the individual perpetrators. The “of and concerning” test refers to the principle that a person suing for defamation needs to demonstrate that the defamatory words at issue referred to him or her (or it) specifically, either directly or by implication. That obstacle has now been overcome, as Judge Richard E. Moore of the Charlottesville Circuit Court has ruled that the article is reasonably capable of being interpreted as conveying defamatory allegations against Phi Kappa Psi. He overruled Rolling Stone’s demurrer and has allowed the case to proceed. It will ultimately be up to the fact-finder to determine whether the article is defamatory with respect to the fraternity.

Under Virginia law, a complaint for defamation must show on its face that the alleged defamatory statements are “of and concerning” the plaintiff. A plaintiff satisfies the “of or concerning” test if he shows that the statement was intended to refer to him specifically and would be so understood by persons reading it who knew him. Gazette, Inc. v. Harris, 229 Va. 1, 37 (1985). Whether a statement may reasonably be interpreted as “of and concerning” a plaintiff is a question of law to be decided by the court. If a statement cannot be so interpreted in the opinion of the judge, the case will be dismissed at the outset. But if the court finds a reasonable jury could conclude that the defamatory statement relates to the plaintiff, the court will allow the case to proceed to trial. That is what has happened in the Phi Kappa Psi case.

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