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.
By way of illustration, let’s take a quick look at the recent case of Dangerfield v. WAVY Broadcasting, from the Norfolk Division of the Eastern District of Virginia. It’s a case that shows why it’s important for journalists to make liberal use of the word “allegedly” when reporting on those accused of committing crimes. Here’s what happened, according to the opinion (and based on both the allegations made by the plaintiff in his pleadings and by papers submitted by WAVY):
A woman who claimed she had been raped told police investigators that Jason Dangerfield was her assailant. A police investigation concluded that Dangerfield had non-consensual sexual intercourse with the victim in her car. The police issued a search warrant for Dangerfield’s DNA based on the woman’s accusation, but they never arrested him for the crime. Two weeks later, WAVY-TV Channel 10 broadcast a report containing the following statement:
Hampton police have arrested a man accused of rape. According to a warrant, 35-year-old Jason Dangerfield raped a woman inside of her car. It happened back in May while the car was parked on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News. The victim was taken to a local hospital. No further information has been released.
Mr. Dangerfield sued for defamation, claiming that the news story falsely portrayed him as “being a rapist.” And this is what I am talking about. Where in the statement does WAVY call Dangerfield a rapist? Where does it say that Dangerfield committed rape? It doesn’t. WAVY reported that he was merely “accused of rape.” And that statement is 100% true, whether or not Dangerfield actually committed rape.
The court recited the principle that “allegedly defamatory words are to be taken in their plain and natural meaning” and held that Dangerfield could not “extrapolate beyond the ‘plain and natural’ meaning of words to claim that [WAVY’s] broadcast stated that Plaintiff was a ‘rapist.'” (emphasis in original). The court found that the report that Dangerfield was “accused of rape” was substantially accurate and therefore dismissed the claims based on the allegation that WAVY reported that Dangerfield was a rapist.
However, the WAVY report did contain a false statement: it stated that the Hampton Police had arrested Dangerfield for rape. First of all, the Hampton Police weren’t involved in this case at all–it was the Newport News Police. That error, however, was insignificant. What was significant was the false report of having been arrested. Dangerfield was never arrested, and the court found that misrepresentation sufficient to allow the case to go forward on that basis alone.
If you’ve been accused of a crime, the media has the right to inform the public about it. Still, they need to be careful to distinguish between alleged, unproven accusations, and actual facts. No defamation claim will lie if the media report is substantially accurate.