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Appeals court reinstates conservative’s libel case

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Libel         Jan 8, 2001    

Appeals court reinstates conservative’s libel case

  • The Jan. 5 decision from a three-judge panel leaves to a lower court the determination of whether anecdotes about Paul Weyrich carry a defamatory meaning.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. (D.C. Cir.) on Jan. 5 reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a libel and invasion of privacy lawsuit brought by a conservative political activist against The New Republic.

The court rejected most of Paul Weyrich’s claims that the article was defamatory, but did allow that “some of the article’s contested statements [we]re both verifiable and reasonably capable of defamatory meaning.”

The New Republic published a cover article entitled “Robespierre of the Right — What I Ate at the Revolution” in October 1997. The article chronicled the political life of Weyrich, from starting conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation to founding the National Empowerment Television channel.

The article said that Weyrich experienced “sudden bouts of pessimism and paranoia” during the Reagan administration and that modern conservatives have acted “as nutty as Weyrich.” The article detailed several Weyrich outbursts and his alienation from Republican leaders with whom he was once aligned.

Weyrich sued The New Republic, claiming the article portrayed him as mentally unsound. A federal district court judge dismissed the case in August 1999 for failing to allege the necessary elements of a defamation claim.

On appeal, the court refuted the claim that the characterization of Weyrich’s temperment was defamatory. The appeals court held that the magazine did not claim Weyrich in fact suffered a debilitating psychological condition, and that the word “paranoia” has taken on a popular meaning separate from the clinical definition.

“Never does the article claim to make a psychological pronouncement, nor would a reasonable reader understand it to do so,” the court stated in its opinion. “Presented in such a loose manner, in such a well-understood context, the article’s reference to ’bouts . . . of paranoia’ is neither verifiable nor does it imply specific defamatory facts.”

However, the three-judge panel ruled that several anecdotal stories about Weyrich presented verifiable facts, and therefore were capable of defamatory meaning. In one story, the article recounted a Weyrich outburst where he “frothed at the mouth.” The appellate court left it to the trial court to determine which of the claimed examples were reasonably capable of defamatory meaning, but emphasized that to be defamatory, the story must be materially false.

The appeals court was careful to state it was not indicating how the trial court should rule on the merits, but that the trial court “must take pains to distinguish those anecdotes that are both verifiably false and reasonably capable of defamatory meaning from those that are not.”

(Weyrich v. The New Republic; Media Counsel: Andrew Marks, Clifton Elgarten and Stuart Newberger) DB


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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