Wednesday, July 27, 2011

'Substantial Truth' Doctrine Derails Inmate's Defamation Suit

Seal of the United States Court of Appeals for...Image via WikipediaIn Bustos v. A&E Television Networks (Case No. 10-1253), a three-member panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit this month upheld a trial court's ruling against an Hispanic Colorado inmate who sued A & Television Networks for airing a documentary alleging he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood white supremacist group.

Gangland: Aryan Brotherhood aired nationally on A & E in November 1998, and included footage from a surveillance tape showing Bustos fighting with another inmate while voice-over narration discussed the white supremacist group and its tradition of violence. Bustos alleged he was subjected to death threats because of the false impression that he was a member of the group.

Concurring with the trial court that the program's impression that Bustos was an Aryan Brotherhood member was defamatory, the 10th Circuit said the defendant was protected because the statement was "substantially true." As the subject of the program involved a matter of public concern, the burden of proof was on Bustos to show the Aryan Brotherhood accusation was materially false, the 10th Circuit opinion said.

"Comparing the challenged defamatory statement(membership in the Aryan Brotherhood) to the truth (conspiring with and aiding and abetting the Aryan Brotherhood), we cannot see how any juror could find the difference to be a material one--that is, likely to cause a reasonable member of the general public to think significantly less favorably of Mr. Bustos," the appellate court concluded.

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