Newspaper's statements about school principal are opinion and not defamatory, N.Y. judge rules

Lilly Chapa | Libel | News | May 1, 2013

Articles published by the New York Daily News calling a former school principal a “firebrand” and a “principal of hate” are not defamatory because the statements are opinions, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled last week. The Supreme Court is the trial-level court in New York.

Judge Robert McDonald threw out Frank Borzellieri’s 2012 claim of defamation because the statements in question “are incapable of being objectively characterized as true or false,” McDonald said in the decision.

The judge also stated that Borzellieri is considered a limited purpose public figure under New York law because he has written racially divisive books and articles and thrust himself into the forefront of racial controversy. As a public figure, Borzellieri was required to show that the newspaper acted with actual malice, but McDonald ruled that he did not meet that requirement.

In 2011, the Daily News wrote a series of articles about Borzellieri, who was then the principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic School. The paper wrote that Borzellieri had “a history of controversial writings and campaigns,” and speculated whether he was active in a white supremacist group. Included in the articles was an excerpt of one of his books, which stated the rising black and Hispanic populations in America would lead to the ‘New Dark Age.’

Ultimately, the school fired Borzellieri after the articles were published. Borzellieri never denied his views but claimed that the paper had defamed him when it called him a firebranding white supremacist.

McDonald applied four factors that would determine whether the newspaper's statements were defamatory. He considered whether the statements had a precise meaning or could be ambiguous, whether the statements could objectively considered true or false, the content as a whole and the broader social context surrounding the article.

“These statements are incapable of proof in the plaintiff’s case…The character of the man will be assessed differently by different individuals depending on their own subjective views,” McDonald's decision stated. “Subjective characterizations of the plaintiff’s behavior made in the articles are nonactionable opinion.”

Matthew Leish, in-house counsel for the Daily News, said in an interview that they are pleased with the decision.

“This is a strong affirmation of the constitutional right of the press to report on matters of public concern and to make statements of opinion about those matters,” Leish said.