Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Prisoner of Love Loses Libel Suit Against Boston Daily

John Adams Courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts...Image via WikipediaThe Massachusetts Appeals Court this week in Edmund LaChance Jr. v. The Boston Herald et al. (Docket No. 09-P-2129) upheld the trial court's grant of summary judgment dismissing the libel suit against tabloid daily The Boston Herald and reporter Michelle McPhee brought by a pro se plaintiff, an inmate, who claimed he was defamed by a series of articles in 2005 about online dating by felons.

LaChance placed a personal ad on the Web site Inmate Connections in September 2004, that included a photo, listed his interests (tunneling?), and acknowledged he was in stir, but did not articulate the criminal convictions that put him there. Herald reporter McPhee wrote three articles that the plaintiff alleged contained erroneous, defamatory information about him, including: 1) he was convicted of manslaughter; 2) his online ads said he was incarcerated for manslaughter; and 3) he sexually molested an elderly woman.

The Herald conceded that the above information it printed was factually inaccurate. The Superior Court judge granted judgment without trial to the Herald, finding the alleged defamatory statements about LaChance were substantially true or privileged.

The appellate court upheld the grant of summary judgment, holding that the newspaper articles involved a matter of public concern ("the dangers of interacting with violent felons online"), and that  LaChance was a limited public figure who had failed to prove the statements at issue were defamatory and false and that the Herald published them with actual malice--knowing the information was false or exhibiting reckless disregard about whether the information was true or false.

LaChance was not convicted of manslaughter; rather, he was in prison for rape, aggravated rape, armed robbery and a litany of other offenses that still might make a young woman hesitant to introduce him to her parents.  The Appeals Court ruled the Herald articles were shielded from libel under the fair and accurate report privilege because the inaccurate information that LaChance had sexually attacked an elderly woman was obtained by McPhee from an incorrect court docket entry she reviewed that subsequently was amended, which the Court said could not have been known by the Herald when it accurately reported the docket entry.

The Appeals Court noted that LaChance was "neither a victim nor an unwitting participant" in the Herald's coverage of online convict dating because he voluntarily place an ad on the Inmate Connections site. The Court said the ad at issue was misleading and deceptive because LaChance didn't specify the crimes that put him behind bars and because he said in the ad he was "not a bad man and I treat everyone the way I wish to be treated."

Statements that contain inaccuracies are not necessarily false for purposes of a defamation claim. Summary judgment is a device favored by courts in defamation claims because it weeds out meritless cases without the onerous cost of a trial and limits the restrictions on freedom of expression. In this case, the Appeals Court determined that LaChance's reputation wasn't impugned by erroneously reporting that he was doing time for manslaughter in that his long criminal record and the rape and other crimes he committed for which he was jailed hardly made him a pillar of the community with a stellar reputation in the eyes of the public.

The staff of "TUOL" suggests Inmate Connections undergo a Web site renaming along the lines of successful dating services such as eHarmony and humbly offers "e-Scape."

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