No one likes to be the subject of gossip. However, a plaintiff has no redress under the law regarding true rumors because a statement’s truth is an absolute defense against defamation claims. To be defamatory, the statement must be false. But when it comes to defamation law, truth can be relative. U.S. courts are constantly striving to strike the perfect balance between the intent, meaning, and effect of the statement while also considering any spoken or published inaccuracies.
In a 1989 defamation case filed by terminated firefighter Anthony Jones against Palmer Communications, Inc., the Supreme Court of Iowa denied Palmer’s defense of substantial truth and ruled in favor of appellee Jones.
After Mr. Jones was fired from the Des Moines Fire Department following six failed attempts to pass the EMT exam, Palmer conducted an interview with Des Moines Fire Chief Robert Armstrong. In his interview, Armstrong claimed that Jones received tax-payer funded tutoring at the Des Moines Area Community College, and that Jones’s reading comprehension test results reported that he read at a third grade level. According to Palmer, reporters had unsuccessfully attempted to reach Jones for comment. Jones denied this claim. It was later clarified that Jones did not in fact read at a third-grade level, but rather at a level similar to the bottom 33% of community college students.
The court ruled that because “the heart of the matter in question—the hurtfulness of the utterance,” was not true, the report was substantially false and defamatory toward Jones.
Courts are not always as favorable to plaintiff’s defamation claims. In the 1990 case filed by AIDS Counsel and Testing Centers (ACT) against Group W Television, Inc., the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling that the minor inaccuracies presented in Group W’s broadcast did not significantly alter the effect of the message and was thus not defamatory.
ACT, a for-profit AIDS testing center, aggressively promoted itself as a faster and easier alternative to free government-sponsored AIDS testing. Buzz about the organization caught the attention of news outlets that subsequently investigated ACT. One such outlet, WJZ-TV, a branch of Group W Television, broadcasted a report on ACT. The reported included several inaccuracies, including assertions that ACT was closing one office and moving to another, that it was charging for AIDS ID cards, and that the office move had spurred investigations about the organization. In reality, ACT was opening a new office in addition to their original, it was giving away ID cards after customers paid for their tests, and the investigations arose after consumer complaints were filed with the Attorney General.
Though the inaccuracies in this case were unquestionable, they were minor in comparison to the true facts that were reported. The ACT really was under investigation for operating without a license and neglecting to comply with state regulations, and the AIDS IDs really were controversial in nature because the IDs did not confirm or deny whether the patient was currently affected.
Because the false statements were not the most injurious to ACT’s reputation and did not produce an altered effect that would have been avoided had they been left out, the report was not ruled to be defamatory.
In our next post, we'll be taking a look at exactly what it takes for a statement to be considered legally published and how those standards play out inside the courtroom.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.