Wednesday, July 11, 2012

UPDATE: R.I. High Court Affirms Dismissal of Restaurateur's Defamation Suit

Lady Liberty with the scales of justice in the...(Photo credit: Wikipedia)In Robert L. Burke et al. v. Katherine Gregg et al. (Case No. 2011-148), the Rhode Island Supreme Court this week upheld a trial court's dismissal of a restaurant owner's defamation suit against The Providence Journal and Citadel Broadcasting Co.-owned WPRO-AM (see "TUOL" post 3/26/10).

In the decision written by Associate Justice Francis X. Flaherty, the High Court ruled against Burke, owner of Providence's Pot au Feu restaurant, holding that the article at issue by Journal reporter Katherine Gregg was not susceptible to a defamatory meaning and that an epithet-laced rant by WPRO-AM talk show host Dan Yorke against Burke amounted to First Amendment-protected opinion based on underlying facts.

A lower court previously tossed Burke's suit, which arose from a Gregg article about a St. Patrick's Day "Murphy's Law Luncheon" roast hosted by Burke's restaurant and attended by pols and business leaders. The Journal article allegedly wrongly attributed to Burke that remarks at the event were "off the record." That led to a nasty exchange between Burke and Yorke on the latter's radio show in which Yorke allegedly called Burke a "punk," "stupid," and a "manipulative piece of garbage."

Such coarseness, however, is the life's blood of talk radio, which courts routinely dismiss as opinion and rhetorical hyperbole incapable of harming one's reputation. Regarding Gregg's article identifying Burke as wanting the luncheon proceedings off the record, Justice Flaherty could not "conceive of how these comments could reasonably be interpreted to have injuriously affected Burke's reputation, degraded him in society, or brought him into public hatred or contempt."

Restaurant owners know that when there's a disagreement, sometimes it's best to "comp" the check and move on.
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