Federal appeals court affirms dismissal of libel, privacy suit filed over book
ILLINOIS — In early November the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) affirmed the dismissal of a defamation and invasion of privacy suit brought against the author and publisher of a 1991 book about the migration of black Americans from the South to the North.
The suit arose from the book’s unflattering portrayal of Luther Haynes, who was said to have lost work because of his drinking, neglected his children, wasted money, and left his wife for a woman who offered more financial promise.
Haynes sued Nicholas Lemann, the author of the book “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America,” and the book’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
On Haynes’s defamation claim, the court ruled that the allegations were either protected statements of opinion rather than fact, or were substantially true. Even if the particular facts about Haynes were in error, the court held, “[t]hey do not exhibit him in a worse light than a bare recitation of the uncontested facts about his behavior . . . would do.”
The appeals court also rejected Haynes’s claim that Lemann invaded his privacy by reporting facts so intimate that their disclosure was deeply embarrassing and gratuitous.
The court held that the facts of Haynes’s life disclosed by Lemann illustrated the author’s themes about sharecropper morality and the interaction of that morality with the government’s anti-poverty programs. “No detail in the book claimed to invade the Hayneses’ privacy is not germane to the story that the author wanted to tell, a story not only of legitimate but of transcendent public interest,” the court wrote.
(Haynes v. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; Media Counsel: James A. Klenk, Chicago)