Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Defamation suit threatens free speech

The Idaho Supreme Court currently has under consideration a case that will have a significant impact on your vital rights of free speech and freedom of the press.

A former Vallivue schoolteacher is suing USA Today, KTVB and a number of others over pieces of investigative journalism they produced. Those stories revealed that the teacher had lost his teaching license in Oregon after it was found that in 2005 he had engaged in sexual contact with an 18-year-old female student. He resigned his Idaho teaching position after the stories broke.

Now the teacher is suing USA Today and others who brought those facts to light.

It is undisputed in the teacher’s lawsuit that the reports were true in each and every factual claim they made. The suit is based on a controversial doctrine, never before adopted in Idaho, called “defamation by implication.” This doctrine holds that even if everything you say is true, you can still be held liable for the false inferences a listener or reader could draw from them.

The question before the Supreme Court isn’t whether the news stories actually contained a libelous implication. It’s whether the case can proceed on that basis, or whether it is necessary to prove that a statement was actually false to bring a suit. It’s a so-called “case of first impression,” meaning Idaho courts have never addressed the question of whether defamation by implication can serve as the basis for a civil suit.

Without either precedent or legislation to determine the outcome of the ruling, this is as close as courts get to acting as legislative bodies. If the justices find the case can move forward, they have created a precedent that allows future defamation cases to be brought not on the basis of false statements, but on the basis of inferences.

The chilling effect that a finding for the teacher would have on free speech and debate about matters of public concern is hard to overstate. The best defense against a libel suit is simple: “Everything I said was true.” That should be enough, and it requires the party bringing the suit to identify a false statement and present evidence showing it isn’t true in order for the lawsuit to proceed.



Anonymous said...

“Everything I said was true.”

There should be no more discussion required if that statement is correct.

Anonymous said...

This suit only threatens speech if the Judge in this case is an idiot and all the courts above this court are also packed with idiots and since there is now a nice intelligent majority on the Supreme Court we know where this case will die if it ever gets that far.

Bill R. said...

I can't believe cases like this actually make it into a courtroom.

Anonymous said...

So now journalist have to worry about what the reader MIGHT infer?

Where was this worry when the MSM was reporting on everything conservative?