NEW YORK–The winner of an “ugly brides competition” held by two radio disc jockeys may sue the two broadcasters and their employer for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a state intermediate appellate court in Albany held in late December.
Bob Mason and Bill Sheehan, who were working for WPYX-FM in Albany at the time, regularly performed a routine during which they searched through the wedding announcements in the local paper and declared one of the women pictured the “ugliest bride of the day.” Though they usually used only the first name of the winner, on June 17, 1996, they announced the full name of Annette Esposito-Hilder, the daily “winner” and an employee of a rival radio station.
Writing for a unanimous five-member court, Justice Ann Mikoll recognized that, if Esposito-Hilder had sued the station for defamation the suit would have been dismissed, because “under no circumstances would it be reasonable to consider the content of defendants’ broadcast as anything but pure, subjective opinion.”
However, the court declared that claims based on emotional distress were a different matter. Because the contest “winner” was a private individual and the subject of the contest was of little or no public interest, the court held, a jury could find there was a deliberate intent to inflict injury because the routine was expanded to include the plaintiff’s name and the fact that the parties are competitors in the broadcast industry.
The appeals court upheld the decision of trial court Judge Joseph Harris of Albany, who compared the disc jockies to wolves attempting to parade around in the sheep’s clothing of the First Amendment, “feasting upon the character, reputation and sensibilities of innocent private persons.” (Esposito-Hilder v. SFX Broadcasting; Media Counsel: Brian Cousin, New York City)