‘Extortion’ and ‘blackmail’ deemed rhetorical in libel suit
HAWAII–The words “extortion” and “blackmail” were rhetorical in the context of an editorial about a mayor’s zoning proposal, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) ruled in May.
In an unpublished decision, the court affirmed a District Court judgment dismissing Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi’s libel claim against the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, The (Honolulu) Advertiser and their publishers.
The suit stemmed from a July 1993 Star-Bulletin article, “Blackmail Incorporated,” referring to a controversial zoning proposal promoted by Fasi. The title, a play on the phrase “murder incorporated,” is “rhetorical hyperbole” and must be viewed in the context of the entire article, the court said.
The article outlined Fasi’s zoning plan, labeled his behavior inappropriate, and contended that state residents would suffer financial harm if the zoning changes were enacted. The court found that “no reasonable mind, in the context of the entire editorial, could have taken the article to accuse Fasi of the literal crimes of extortion and blackmail.”
The Advertiser, owned by Gannett Co., was sued because it has entered into a Joint Operating Agreement with the Star-Bulletin. (Fasi v. Gannett Co.; Media Counsel: Jeff Portnoy, Honolulu)