An essential requirement of any defamation action is that the alleged statement convey factual assertions. Pure expressions of opinion (i.e., those that neither state directly nor imply any assertion of objective fact) are protected by both the First Amendment and Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution. Whether a particular statement should be classified as fact or opinion is a threshold issue for the court to decide. Consequently, many libel and slander cases are dismissed at the outset and never reach a jury.
There’s not always a bright line between the two, and sometimes courts get it wrong. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed the decision of a Halifax County court to dismiss a defamation action on the ground the statement constituted opinion and not fact. The statement at issue was this: “Tharpe told me that Tharpe was going to screw the Authority like he did Fort Pickett.”
It’s certainly tempting to treat a statement like this as opinion, because whether or not someone got “screwed” is subject to differing viewpoints. But look closely. The speaker is not making the claim that Tharpe screwed the Authority or screwed Fort Pickett. What he is saying is that Tharpe TOLD him these things. Tharpe’s position in the trial court was that he never made such a statement. So the issue wasn’t whether or not getting “screwed” is a matter of fact or opinion, but whether it was a factual assertion to claim that Tharpe made this particular statement. The Virginia Supreme Court held that it was “indisputably capable of being proven true or false.”
The Virginia Supreme Court had not previously dealt with the issue of whether fabricated quotations might be actionable as defamation. Other courts, however, have supported the theory, and the Virginia Supreme Court found their reasoning persuasive.
The United States Supreme Court, for example, held in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine that falsely attributing a statement to another can harm that person’s reputation regardless of whether the factual matters in the quoted statement are true or false. The false attribution can cause the public to infer the plaintiff has a particular attitude or character trait that can damage his reputation.
In the Masson case, a psychoanalyst was falsely quoted as stating that he was “the greatest analyst who ever lived.” To determine whether the statement is actionable, it is not necessary to determine whether the psychoanalyst was, in fact, the greatest analyst who ever lived. Many would not want to associate with any analyst who would make such a bold and arrogant proclamation. Therefore, the harm to reputation lies in the false allegation that the analyst made the statement, and whether he made the statement is a factual matter capable of being proven.
The court noted in a footnote that there is no “wholesale defamation exemption” for statements of opinion because sometimes apparent expressions of opinion imply facts. While not discussed in the opinion, I think the alleged statement is particularly egregious because it attributes to Tharpe a statement that implies incriminating facts. If Tharpe had said that he had “screwed Fort Pickett,” I would argue that such a statement implies that Tharpe–as a matter of fact–acted dishonestly, committed fraud, or otherwise cheated Fort Pickett in some way. A reasonable listener hearing the alleged statement might have formed these conclusions and not just understood Tharpe as expressing his personal opinion that Fort Pickett got a bad deal.
In any event, the court held it was error to sustain the demurrer and remanded the case to the trial court.