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Court tosses defamation suit over candidate's comment on race

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         MICHIGAN         Libel         Mar 15, 2001    

Court tosses defamation suit over candidate’s comment on race

  • A former congresswoman’s misquoted comments printed in the Detroit Free Press were not substantially different than the truth, the appellate court held.

A Michigan appellate court on March 9 dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by a former congresswoman against the Detroit Free Press. The court ruled that a quote attributed to former Rep. Barbara Rose Collins was “substantially true” and therefore not actionable.

Ann Hazard-Hargrove, an employee of States News Service in Washington, D.C., interviewed Collins, who represented the district that included Detroit, during her re-election campaign in 1996. Collins expressed her feelings about racism in the interview. States News Service provided a transcript and an audiotape of the interview to the Free Press.

The Free Press published a story, based on the interview and attributed the following statement to Collins: “All white people, I don’t believe, are intolerant. That’s why I say I love the individuals, but I hate the race.”

After Collins lost in the primary, the Free Press published a retraction. The newspaper admitted it incorrectly quoted Collins and admitted she had actually said: “All white people, I don’t believe, are intolerant. That’s why I say, I love the individuals, but I don’t like the race.”

Collins sued the Free Press, States News Service and several individuals in Michigan state court. The defendants moved for summary disposition, but the trial court denied the motion because it found that “hate” and “dislike” had sufficiently different meanings.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that Collins was a public figure and therefore had to prove actual malice. A misquotation will not suffice for actual malice unless the alteration results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement, the court said. Although inaccurate, the court said, substituting “hate” for “don’t like” does not affect the truthful nature of what Collins said.

The court also looked at other comments Collins made in the interview to test whether the misquote was materially different from the others.

“When the article is viewed in its entirety, the difference between the two quotations is not material,” the court said. “The gist of the actual statement was the same as the subject misquotation.”

(Collins v. Detroit Free Press, Inc.; Media Counsel: Herschel Fink, Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohen, Detroit) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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