Thursday, April 14, 2011

Newspaper Editorial Sparks Libel Suit

Seal of Chesterfield County, VirginiaImage via WikipediaThe plaintiff's attorney and presiding judge involved in a successful defamation case brought by a teacher against a weekly newspaper over a published letter to the editor have each filed a libel action against the same newspaper in Chesterfield County (Va.) Circuit Court based on an editorial written by the newspaper's president about the case.

In Wayne Barry Montgomery v. Southside Voice, Inc. et al. (Case No. CL11000834) and Melvin R. Hughes, Jr. v. Southside Voice, Inc. et al. (Case No. CL1100835), attorney Montgomery and Richmond Circuit Judge Hughes each sued The Richmond Voice and its president, Jack Green, for $1 million compensatory damages and $350,000 punitive damages based on Green's editorial in March 2010.

As reported by the publication, Richmond Biz Sense, and the ABA Journal Law News Now blog, The Richmond Voice, whose readership is largely African-American, published a letter to the editor that criticized a Henrico County middle school teacher, who in turn, successfully sued the Voice for libel in 2009, receiving a jury award in March 2010, totaling $125,000. Montgomery represented the teacher and Judge Hughes presided over the trial.

A week after the adverse verdict, Green wrote an editorial about the case in the Voice that said in part: "We did not take into account the politics played in a courtroom--between judges and counsel--and the maneuverings of counsel who treat facts casually." That statement did not sit well with the plaintiffs in the current action, who allege that their professional reputations were sullied by the accusations of engaging in courtroom politics.

The plaintiffs face considerable hurdles in their libel suit, including quantifying their damages and overcoming an anticipated "fair comment" defense by the weekly, which is likely to argue that an editorial constitutes opinion, which by its very nature cannot be false and defamatory.

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