Thursday, April 26, 2012

Paper Sued for Libel Over Faux Letter to the Editor

This is a map of Vermilion County, Illinois, U...
 Vermilion County, Illinois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Paxton Record was "pranked" by a fake letter to the editor, and now, it, and its owner, The News-Gazette, Inc. of central Illinois, face a decidedly unfunny defamation suit, the News-Gazette reports.

The Rev. Michael McMahon, headmaster of the Notre Dame de La Salette Boys Academy Catholic boarding school, sued for libel and emotional distress in Vermilion County Circuit Court, seeking $50,000 damages for each of four counts brought against the media defendants.  A letter to the editor published by the Record on April 6, 2011, supported gay rights and purportedly was authored by the president of the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Association of Vermilion County ("GLBAVC"), who is identified in the letter as Michael McMahon and whose given address and phone number match the Notre Dame de La Salette Boys Academy.

The Paxton Record acknowledged it had been had with a prominent correction and apology in the issue following publication of the faux letter.  The complaint alleges the defendants made no effort to confirm the validity of the letter by contacting McMahon before running it and claims the plaintiff's ability to function as a headmaster at a Catholic institution and carry out his duties as a priest were impaired by his association with a gay rights advocacy group.

Ordinarily, proving damages and harm to his reputation might be considerable hurdles for the plaintiff, but Illinois' defamation law allows that certain statements are defamatory per se (on their face) and do not require the plaintiff to prove damages. Should be an interesting case, because, although the Catholic Church has hardly been in the vanguard of the gay rights movement, the idea of being portrayed as sympathetic to the notion of tolerance for others doesn't seem such a terrible thing, and if the community that knows Rev. McMahon knows he did not author the letter and is not the president of GLBAVC, how is his reputation harmed? Rev. Jerry Falwell's defamation claim against Hustler magazine in the '80s failed because no one believed true the content of a parody ad suggesting Falwell had been intimate with his mother, among other things.

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  1. With all due respect, Falwell was not a libel claim: it was an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, under which he tried to circumvent the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that dressing his claim up as something else still required First Amendment scrutiny, and that the article could not be understood as asserting genuine facts. The question of proof of harm was never reached. Read "Flynt v. Falwell: The First Amendment on Trial" by Rod Smolla. Great book!

  2. That's true. The High Court in Falwell and in Time v. Hill showed its disapproval of attempts to do an "end-around" a 1st Amendment libel analysis, be it through invasion of privacy or emotional distress. There was a defamation count in the Falwell case that went nowhere for the reason I stated. Likewise, Justice Brennan in NYT v. Sullivan noted Sullivan's reputation was not damaged because witnesses who testified on his behalf didn't believe what the Times ad purportedly said about him