‘David Duke’ comparison could be defamatory, high court rules
PENNSYLVANIA–A published statement accusing a district attorney of “electioneering” and calling him the “David Duke of Chester County” could be interpreted as more than a charge of racism and could be found defamatory, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in a 3-0 decision, with three justices abstaining, in late April.
The court reversed the rulings of two lower courts that found the language at issue to be opinion. The trial court in Philadelphia in early April 1994 dismissed the complaint on a demurrer, finding that the plaintiff had failed to meet the legal standard necessary to show defamation.
In early November 1991, B.J. Phillips wrote an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer describing an altercation a month earlier at Lincoln College between a group of black students and a group of young black men visiting the college from New York City. Only a single paragraph in the article mentioned the plaintiff, James MacElree, who was then district attorney for Chester County.
“Writing to a local newspaper, [Lincoln President] Sudarkasa questioned remarks by the Chester County district attorney that one of the New Yorkers had been stabbed,” the article reported. “When D.A. James MacElree replied with quotations from police reports, the university’s lawyer, Richard Glanton, accused him of electioneering — ‘the David Duke of Chester County running for office by attacking Lincoln’.”
The Supreme Court noted that, even though only a small portion of the article discussed MacElree, “specific language may be defamatory even though the subject of the defamatory language is not the focus of the article.”
The court found that the statement could be construed to mean that MacElree was abusing his power as district attorney to further racism and his own political aspirations. The court opined that the statement went beyond “merely labeling [MacElree] a racist.” A charge of racism could be found defamatory at trial if MacElree proved that the statement harmed his reputation in the community, the court stated.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Ralph Cappy stated that he joined the majority with the understanding that “a mere allegation of racism without more is, as a matter of law, not actionable in defamation.”
MacElree, now a Chester County judge, was represented by Richard Sprague, an attorney who recently settled his own defamation claim against the Philadelphia Inquirer for an undisclosed amount, following 23 years of litigation. (MacElree v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc.; Media Counsel: Samuel Klein, Philadelphia)