Mike Jeffreys breaks his silence Samuel’s Blog Weekly Poll: Boat People

American defamation laws get it right

April 28th, 2009 at 07:16am

I note that common sense won out in a recent defamation case in the US:

A federal appeals court had some advice Friday for anyone whose reputation gets trashed on talk radio: Don’t bother suing for slander, because no one reasonably expects objective facts from the typical talk show host.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco offered no solace to an Oregon couple who sued Tom Martino, host of a nationally syndicated consumer-advice show. In a 2004 call from a customer of the couple’s recreational vehicle outlet who complained about the store’s failure to repair a defective personal watercraft, Martino told her, “They’re just lying to you.”

That’s not slander, the court said, because slander and its written counterpart, libel, are false statements of fact that damage someone’s reputation. An assertion that might otherwise sound factual – that the retailer lied – would be interpreted as opinion by any reasonable talk show listener, the court said.

Martino’s program “contains many of the elements that would reduce the audience’s expectation of learning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host, and heated controversy,” the three-judge panel said, upholding a judge’s dismissal of the suit.

Besides, the court said, Martino was obviously relying on the caller’s version of the facts and had no apparent reason to question it. That means he was just giving his own opinion of someone else’s account, and wasn’t making factual claims of his own, the panel said, citing a past ruling that allowed similar reliance on news articles.

Independently of this story, a similar thing happened to me last week. I was talking to someone about the upcoming demolition of the Belconnen Bus Interchange and they started probing me for information because, a few days earlier, they had gone to the ACTION information shopfront in Civic for information, only to be told by the bloke manning the booth that they “don’t have any information about it”…clearly nonsense considering that the information has been on their website for some time. My reaction to this story was “well, he’s [the person at the ACTION booth] either an idiot or he lied to you”.

I am forced to wonder whether ACTION, or the person manning the booth, would be mounting a defamation case against me today if this had played out in a broadcast situation…or if in fact they will consider coming after me now that I have written this? Whilst I don’t consider my comment to be defamatory in the slightest, I have to admit that I don’t trust the Australian court system to come to the same conclusion.


Entry Filed under: General News,Samuel's Editorials

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