Columnist’s critique of “gay-basher” candidate allowed
OHIO–In late May, the Ohio Supreme Court in Columbus reversed a lower court ruling and held that statements accusing a political candidate of fostering homophobia were constitutionally protected opinion and not actionable for libel.
Loren Loving Vail, a 1990 Ohio Senate candidate, sued the Cleveland Plain Dealer for libel after the newspaper printed a column by Joe Dirck titled, “Gay-basher takes refuge in the closet.” The column stated that Vail “doesn’t like gay people” and was “latch[ing] onto homophobia” to get elected. Dirck also stated that Vail had engaged in an “anti-homosexual diatribe.”
The state Supreme Court ruled that an ordinary reader would believe the statements in Dirck’s column to be opinion, not fact. Therefore, the court held, the statements were protected from a libel suit by the Ohio Constitution, which provides a guarantee of press freedom separate and independent of the First Amendment to the federal constitution.
The court explained that in order to determine if statements are opinion in Ohio, a court must examine the specific language used, whether the statement was verifiable, the general context of the statement, and the broader context in which the statement appeared.
The court noted that the column appeared on the Forum page of the newspaper under the title “Commentary.” The court stated that the words “forum” and “commentary” conveyed the message that the column contains the personal opinions of the writer.
The court ruled that although certain statements referring to Vail’s honesty are possibly verifiable, Dirck’s language was “value- laden” and represented a subjective point of view. (Vail v. The Plain Dealer Publishing Co.; Media Counsel: David L. Marburger, Cleveland)