The Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion today in which it addressed the concept of defamation by implication. Building on its 1954 decision in Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, the court reiterated that although defamatory meaning can sometimes be implied with literally true statements, the inferred meaning cannot be extended beyond the ordinary and common acceptation of the words used. Innuendo cannot be used to introduce new matter or extend the meaning of the words used by the speaker. In short, “the alleged implication must be reasonably drawn from the words actually used.”
In Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies, LLC, Phillip D. Webb, an assistant principal at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, sued Virginian-Pilot and reporter Louis Hansen for its handling of a story about the school’s disciplinary process. Webb’s son, a student of a neighboring school where Webb previously coached pole vaulting, had been charged with a felony for assaulting another student’s father but received no punishment from the school. Webb’s lawsuit acknowledged that the reporting of the story was truthful, but claimed that the story implied that Webb abused his position of authority to obtain preferential treatment for his son. Webb argued that when the reporter wrote that the student “did not get preferential treatment because of his dad’s position,” the implied meaning was “exactly the opposite.” The court did not agree.
While acknowledging that the article insinuated that Webb’s son may have benefited from special treatment, the court held that there was nothing in the article to suggest that Webb solicited or otherwise procured such treatment. Therefore, the article was not reasonably capable of the defamatory meaning Webb ascribed to it and the jury should never have been permitted to even consider the claim.
Trial courts perform an essential threshold, gatekeeping function when it comes to defamation claims. Their job is to determine, as a matter of law, whether a statement alleged to be defamatory is reasonably capable of the defamatory meaning the plaintiff ascribes to the statement. This function, the court held, is to ensure that “defamation suits proceed only upon statements which actually may defame a plaintiff, rather than those which merely may inflame a jury to an award of damages.” If the inference urged by the plaintiff cannot be reasonably drawn from the actual words used, the trial court should sustain any demurrer filed and dismiss the case. In this particular case, the trial court failed to do that, which decision the Virginia Supreme Court held to be in error.