Highlighting parts of newspaper article not defamatory
CALIFORNIA–Opponents of certain individuals seeking a gaming permit who highlighted portions of a truthful newspaper article and distributed copies to 35 people did not create a “defamatory innuendo” that would support a libel claim, a state appellate court in San Francisco held in late May in a case of first impression.
The appellate court upheld a Redwood City trial court decision that the highlighting of a portion of a concededly truthful and accurate article did not change the truth of the article or amount to an independent editorial comment. It dismissed the libel claim based on the opponents’ redistribution of the highlighted article.
In upholding the dismissal, Justice William McGuiness wrote that “any other result would have a deleterious impact on all forms of written and oral speech. If we were to accept [the] contention, the unavoidable effect would be to discourage the dissemination of accurate news reports.”
The appellate court held that the absolute defense of truth to a libel action is not affected by redistribution or emphasis of that information. McGuiness wrote in his opinion for the court that “a truthful and accurate statement of fact is not rendered defamatory simply by repeating it with greater emphasis. . . . In short, no matter how emphatically it is stated or repeated, the truth is still the truth.”
During their controversial attempt to obtain a gaming permit from the Colma Town Council for the only town-authorized “card room” franchise in the mid-1990s, Donald Smith and Thomas Atwood hired attorney Michael Montgomery to represent them. They ultimately replaced Montgomery with another attorney, but Montgomery subsequently was indicted in July 1996 on criminal charges of attempting to influence a state legislator’s decision about the gaming permits on behalf of Smith and Atwood.
The Los Angeles Times published a story about the indictment and reported that Montgomery had represented Smith and Atwood in their bid for the gaming permits.
The day after the article appeared, Ron and Helen Maldonado — opponents of Smith and Atwood’s bid for the exclusive card room franchise in Colma, a small town just south of San Francisco — made copies of the article, highlighting the paragraph that referred to Smith and Atwood, and distributed those copies to 35 Colma residents.
In August 1996, Smith and Atwood sued the Maldonados in state court in Redwood City for libel, claiming the circulation of the newspaper clipping to Colma residents with the paragraph naming them highlighted implied they had been involved in the criminal activity of which Montgomery had been accused. (Smith v. Maldonado; Maldonados’ Attorney: Michael Franchetti, San Francisco)