NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FIRST CIRCUIT · Libel · March 3, 2006
Court reinstates defamation suit over teen sex story
March 3, 2006 · A federal appeals court ruled that a defamation lawsuit dismissed by a lower court can proceed because a Boston magazine’s disclaimer for a woman’s photograph accompanying an article about teenage sexuality did not prevent the photograph from having a defamatory meaning.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston (1st Cir.) ruled that a reasonable reader could find that Stacey Stanton was defamed because she was one of five teenagers in a picture that ran in the May 2003 story in Boston magazine, “Fast Times at Silver Lake High: Teen Sex in the Suburbs.”
Under the headline, subhead and beginning of the story, the magazine ran a disclaimer stating, in its second sentence: “The individuals pictured are unrelated to the people or events described in this story.” The first sentence credited the photographer.
Stanton sued in January 2004, claiming the publication of her photograph in connection with the story damaged her reputation in the community. The U.S. District Court in Boston dismissed her claim in March 2005, ruling that the disclaimer prevented the photograph from having a defamatory meaning.
Under Massachusetts defamation law, to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must show the “communication is reasonably susceptible of a defamatory meaning,” Judge Joseph A. DiClerico Jr. wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
Despite the disclaimer, DiClerico wrote, “we cannot assume, as the district court did, that placing a disclaimer on the first page of an article itself ensures that a reasonable reader will see it. Here, the disclaimer occupies the field between the body of the story and the byline, making it easy to overlook between the larger fonts of both.”
The court also ruled that it could not assume that a reasonable reader “who notices the disclaimer would necessarily read the crucial second sentence,” DiClerico wrote. “It is at least conceivable that a reader might take the first sentence of the disclaimer . . . as a satisfactory explanation of the photographs and therefore stop reading the disclaimer before the second sentence.”
If a reasonable reader did not read the disclaimer, the reader could have “the impression — incorrect, but not unreasonable — that Stanton is the subject of the unflattering statements set for in its text,” DiClerico wrote.
Since the court found a reasonable reader could have not read the disclaimer and could think that the article dealt with Stanton’s behavior, it ruled that her suit would be allowed to continue to trial.
(Stanton v. Metro Corp.; Media Counsel: Robert A. Bertsche, Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye, Boston, Mass.) — CM