Not Sure Whether a Particular Word is Defamatory? Check the Dictionary.

As noted previously on this blog, if an employer falsely suggests to others that an employee was fired for cause when, in truth, the employee quit the job voluntarily, the employer may be liable for defamation. Similarly, when news outlets report on the separation of public figures from their places of employment, they need to be careful with the words they use. Nobody wants to open a newspaper and encounter a story about how they were forcibly removed from a position they voluntarily quit, leaving readers with the false impression that some sort of misconduct occurred. A recent Virginia case involved a news story reporting that a school superintendent was “ousted.” In examining whether a term like this could support a defamation action, the court relied primarily on dictionary definitions.

In Sroufe v. Scripps Media, Inc., Dr. William D. Sroufe, the former superintendent of Colonial Heights Public Schools, took issue with a news story that aired in February 2023 on WTVR/CBS6. The broadcast allegedly misrepresented the circumstances of his departure from the school system. According to the report, Sroufe was “ousted” due to allegedly covering up misconduct by a softball coach at the school. This narrative, he asserted, was not only damaging to his reputation but also blatantly false.

Scripps argued that the word “ousted” could not be defamatory because it’s not a word that carries negative connotations and that, in any event, it’s a matter of opinion as opposed to a factual assertion. Sroufe argued that for WTVR to say he was “ousted” suggested (as a matter of fact, not opinion) he was forcefully removed dictionary-300x236from his position due to misconduct. That narrative, he alleged, was false, so his claim should be allowed to proceed.

The court agreed with Sroufe and denied the motion to dismiss. It observed that the February 17, 2023, story “trumpeted in bold letters” that the “School board votes to oust Colonial Heights superintendent during emergency meeting.” In rejecting Scripps’ argument that the word “oust” was not susceptible of defaming anyone, the court simply turned to the dictionary.

Quoting Merriam-Webster, the court wrote that “As a transitive verb, oust means ‘to remove from or dispossess of property or position by legal action, by force, by the compulsion of necessity.'” Synonyms listed by that dictionary include the following:

  • banish
  • bounce
  • chase
  • drum (out)
  • expel
  • kick out
  • rout
  • throw out
  • turn out
  • boot (out)
  • cast out
  • dismiss
  • eject
  • extrude
  • out
  • run off

Turning to, the following definition of “oust” was offered: “to expel or remove from a place or position occupied or to eject or evict or dispossess.” lists the following synonyms: “depose, dethrone, dislodge, drive out, eject, evict, fire, force out, let go, lose, remove, sack, topple, unseat.”

These dictionary definitions were sufficient to convince the court that the word “oust” carried negative connotations and suggested an involuntary event. A reasonable jury could conclude from the story that Sroufe was forcibly terminated, against his will. This was a factual assertion, not an opinion, and could result in defamation liability against the defendant. For these reasons, it denied the motion to dismiss and allowed the case to proceed.

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