Truth Remains an Absolute Defense Against Defamation Claims

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A Michigan State Court recently dismissed claims against Euclid Media Group, the parent company to several media properties, including Deadline Detroit, Inc. (“Deadline”), for publishing articles about a Plaintiff’s conduct at a Birmingham Public School Board of Education meeting. See Paul Marcum vs. Euclid Media Group, Docket No. 2022-191878-CZ (Mich. Cir. Ct. Jan. 4, 2022) (Dkt. 129) (“Order”).

On August 23, 2021, Deadline published an article, “Man Who Gave Nazi Salute at Birmingham Schools Meeting Loses Tennis Job” (the “Article”). The Article asserted that Plaintiff had gestured and uttered a Nazi salute toward two African American women and a Jewish woman who had voiced their support for a classroom mask mandate. The Article not only identified Plaintiff by name, but it also included his picture and stated Plaintiff had been “accused of flashing a Nazi salute and repeatedly chanting ‘Heil Hitler.'”

On January 4, 2022, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Euclid and four of its media properties, including Deadline, for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious intrusion, tortious publication, false light, and injunctive relief. Plaintiff also alleged he had lost his job and had been labeled as a “KKK member” and a “Nazi” because of Euclid and Deadline’s publications.

Deadline filed a motion for summary disposition as to all claims, arguing Plaintiff had failed to allege any specific, materially false statement about him in the Article. Under Michigan law, a court may grant a motion for summary disposition only when the alleged claims contained in the pleadings are “so clearly unenforceable as a matter of law that no factual development could possibly justify recovery.” Maiden v. Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 119 (1999).

The Court agreed with Deadline. It held that Plaintiff had “failed to allege with specificity any false statement published by [Deadline].” Order at p. 3. Specifically, Plaintiff did not dispute that he had given the Nazi salute, and he conceded he had indeed lost his job. In other words, the Article’s statements were accurate, and it has long been settled that “truth, whenever discovered, is a complete defense” against a defamation claim. Washer v. Bank of Am. Nat’l Tr. & Sav. Ass’n, 87 Cal. App. 2d 501, 509 (1948); see also Francis v. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc., 3 Cal. App. 4th 535, 539-41 (1992) (“[P]laintiffs admit all the statements are true…. We wonder how plaintiffs (or their attorneys) could have ever thought that they had a cause of action for defamation.”).

Plaintiff also claimed the Article’s statement that he had “repeatedly” chanted “Heil Hitler” was false and actionable. The Court disagreed. It held that Plaintiff’s submitted evidence established he had stated “Heil Hitler” more than once—whether Plaintiff was “chanting” or “repeatedly chanting” “Heil Hitler” was irrelevant, because the statement was substantially true, and the effect on potential readers was the same. See Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496, 517 (1991) (“Minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as ‘the substance, the gist, the sting, of the libelous charge be justified’…. Put another way, the statement is not considered false unless it ‘would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.'”) (citations omitted). The substantial truth doctrine “promotes the values of the First Amendment by reducing the risk of self-censorship, yet preserves defamation law’s reputational protection and compensatory function.” Meiring de Villiers, Substantial Truth in Defamation Law, 32 Am. J. Trial Advoc. 91, 123 (2008). If publishers could be held liable for minor inaccuracies, then speech essential to public debate would be chilled. See N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 271–72 (1964) (“[E]rroneous statement[s] [are] inevitable in free debate, and…it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need . . . to survive….'”) (citations omitted).

The Court granted summary disposition on all of Plaintiff’s other claims against Deadline because they were based on the same statements as his defamation and libel claims.

This Order highlights the importance of the substantial truth doctrine as a defense against defamation and libel claims. Defendants who are challenging these types of claims may succeed on summary disposition or summary judgment if they can establish that their allegedly defamatory or libelous statements are true or substantially true. “The rationale for exonerating a truthful defamer is that a truthful defamatory statement merely deprives the plaintiff of a reputation that [he] was not entitled to in the first place. Dissemination of truthful information also provides a public benefit that generally outweighs the plaintiff’s interest in suppressing the inconvenient information.” De Villiers, supra at 98-99.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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