Defamation Case Study: Local Politicans v. Bloggers

A recently filed New York defamation lawsuit has a group of pro-wind farming advocates battling it out against two bloggers. The plaintiffs allege the bloggers ruined their reputations; two claimants aver the bloggers cost them the local elections. What caused the stir? If you believe the petitioners, their good names were disparaged thanks to the defendants’ accusations of voter interference.

The two main plaintiffs – Marty T. Mason and Donald J. Mason – are pro-wind development advocates. The two Masons claim the bloggers’ fodder cost them dearly in the town council elections. The other plaintiffs include Gary J. King, Harvey J. White, Paul C. Mason, Darrell and Marlene Burton and Frank J. Giaquinto. The two defendants are Richard C. Wiley, Sr. and Kathryn A. Hludzenski, authors of jeffersonleaningleft.blogspot.com and pandorasboxofrocks.blogspot.com, respectively. There are also plans to file for subpoenas so anonymous posters can also be added to the lawsuit as defendants.

Since Marty T. Mason and Donald J. Mason were running for public office, they’re considered “public figures.” In addition, since the statements under review dealt with an election, the subject matter will most likely be ruled a matter of public concern. As such, the plaintiffs will have to prove actual malice in order to emerge victorious in this lawsuit.

In the filing, several statements were cited as defamatory. Below is an analysis of each of those statements and what the plaintiffs will have to prove in order for them to be considered defamatory under United States law.

“[M]en of substandard character” – In it of itself, while this certainly isn’t a kind statement, it also probably wouldn’t be considered defamation in a court of law. Saying someone has an unsavory character is opinion since everyone has a different standard as to what constitutes a “good” character. Opinion is protected under the First Amendment More than that, in order for a statement to be found defamatory, it must be provably false.

“[D]eployed a desperate attempt to strip citizens of their fundamental right to vote” – This statement could go either way and largely depends on the preceding and post content. If the bloggers explained what “desperate attempt” was made, and the described attempt is false, but stated as fact, then a judge may rule it defamatory. Otherwise, it could very well be considered opinion and therefore not defamatory.

“[C]learly demonstrate that [they] are not fit to serve in any capacity in our local government” – Alone, this statement is not defamatory. Any individual can have an opinion as to why they don’t believe a given person is “not fit to serve” in the “local government.”

“[W]anted to deny citizens in our community a choice” – Pontificating on a politicians’ possible motives is nearly an American tradition.  Think about all of the political presidential campaign ads you’ve been subjected to over the past several months. Nearly all of them make accusations against their opponent. It’s not defamation; it’s the sport of politics.

“ [A]ttempted to take the right away from people to be voters against wind” – This is another example of a statement that could be considered defamatory if the surrounding content leads the reader to believe that the defendants committed a certain act that legitimately infringed on citizens’ rights. If the action described is false, then the statement would probably be considered defamatory.  This statement on its own, however, could be labeled an opinion. After all, how many times have you heard one political party accuse the other of trying to mess with voter registration and rights? Remember, it’s not illegal to publish a theory if it relates to a matter of public concern.

“[I]ntimidating or exacting retribution against those people that have either registered to vote in Cape Vincent or changed their primary residence in order to vote in Cape Vincent.” – While a judge could rule either way, I think it’s safe to say that this would be considered a defamatory statement. “Exacting retribution” is a strong phrase that inherently implies action. Moreover, they are directly alleging that some of the defendants moved for the sole purpose of “gaming” the system. If, however, the accused can prove they moved for other reasons (which really wouldn’t be the difficult) then the defendants lose on this one.

“[I]nterested in personal financial gain over what is right for their community” – Again, this opinion would not be considered defamatory in it of itself. Voicing your general opinion about someone’s motives — especially when in reference to someone running for office – does not pass the defamation test.

“[T]ried to shut up anybody who disagreed with them at public meetings” – Here we have another example of a statement that would be dependent on surrounding text.

“[E]ven holding secret meetings and lying about them did not work.”  – If the plaintiff’s did not hold secret meetings, then there is a strong argument for this statement being defamatory.

“[T]he corrupt government is gone” – Pure opinion. Think of it this way: most committed Republicans think the current administration is corrupt, and most staunch Democrats thought George W. Bush’s administration was corrupt.

“[H]elped pass a petition which made false claims about voter fraud and STAR double-dipping”  – Again we have an example of a squarely defamatory statement if, indeed, it is false. However, the plaintiffs would have to delineate how this accusation materially damaged their reputations.

“[L]ied to some of the people about how their signature was going to be use(d)”  – Accusing another individual of lying to constituents is defamatory if the person accused did not lie. Furthermore, if the accused never took part in collecting signatures or never talked to people about how their signatures would be used, this would fall squarely in the defamatory square.

“[L]ied, misled, intimidated and otherwise violated the fundamental rights of the citizens of Cape Vincent through their civic activities.” – There is a strong argument for the defamatory nature of this statement. There’s also a strong argument that it is an opinion. This is the type of statement that hinges on good lawyering.

Now, the above analysis can’t be 100% trusted. After all, other contributing factors in the case may affect whether or not the above statements would or would not be considered defamatory. That being said, if you’re considering suing for defamation, it’s important to remember that the foundation of defamation law in the United States is clear: opinion is protected speech.

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