In Virginia, defamation liability can be based on a statement that is literally true, if the true meaning of the statement arises from reasonable inferences attributable to it rather than the actual words used. Some jurisdictions refuse to recognize this “defamation by implication” or “implied defamation” theory, but on August 9, 2012, the Southern District of New York issued an opinion demonstrating that New York is among the states that recognize the doctrine.
Peter Paul Biro is in the business of art restoration and authentication and is well known in the art world for having developed scientific approaches to art authentication through fingerprint analysis. In July 2011, The New Yorker published an article titled “The Mark of a Masterpiece: The man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art.” (Note: a full copy of the article is attached to the opinion). Biro sued the magazine, investigative journalist David Grann, and others for defamation, claiming that various passages in the article damaged his reputation to the tune of two million dollars.
In Biro v. Condé Nast, the court adopted the Fourth Circuit‘s approach to defamatory implication claims, holding that a plaintiff must make an “especially rigorous showing” that (1) the language may be reasonably read to impart the false innuendo, and (2) the author intended or endorses the inference. Where an implication arises due to the omission rather than the expression of facts, the court will examine whether the omission would materially change the alleged implication.
On the other side of the coin, the court noted that if a statement is substantially true according to the understanding of the average reader, it will generally not be deemed defamatory. For example, the article stated that Biro “pioneered a radical approach to authenticating pictures.” Biro claimed this statement was defamatory because he says there is nothing “radical” about fingerprints. Biro characterized the use of fingerprint analysis in art authentication as an “emerging field.” The court found that the truth according to Biro would not have a different effect on the mind of the reader than the idea that fingerprint authentication is “radical.” The court therefore dismissed those claims based on substantially true statements.
On the topic of fact vs. opinion, the court wrote that while expressions of opinion are generally not actionable as defamation, a statement of opinion that is based on undisclosed facts might be actionable because a reader may reasonably infer that the writer knows certain facts which support the opinion. For example, statements alleging that Biro had been caught in lies and was a “phony” suggest facts undisclosed to the reader, the court found. The court declined to dismiss claims based on these statements.
In the final analysis, just four of the original 24 counts survived the motion to dismiss.