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Humane society is government entity, can't sue for libel

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   GEORGIA   ·   Libel   ·   June 8, 2005

Humane society is government entity, can’t sue for libel

  • Neither the Atlanta Humane Society nor its director can recover damages in a defamation lawsuit against an Internet bulletin board user who relied on a news program in posting her comments, the Court of Appeals of Georgia ruled last week.

June 8, 2005  ·   An animal rights advocate who criticized the director of the Atlanta Humane Society on an Internet message board is not liable to the organization or its director for defamation, the Court of Appeals of Georgia ruled Friday.

The court ruled that because the local Humane Society functions as a government agency — due to its public funding and the fact that it has a contract to perform all of the county’s animal control duties — it cannot sue for libel.

The court also ruled that the director became a limited-purpose public figure by willingly participating in an investigative news program and because his position as the organization’s director gives him power over the controversy’s outcome. As such, he must prove the defendant’s statements were made with actual malice, which he could not do, the court held.

The claim centered on comments made by animal activist Kathi Mills on an Internet message board. She had watched a WSB Television investigation about the Atlanta Humane Society in 2001 that criticized the local society’s euthanasia policies, its failure to place animals for adoptions, and its failure to assist in investigating animal cruelty cases.

During the Internet discussion, Mills referred to the organization’s director, Bill Garrett, as “Mr. Kill,” stating that he “was not worthy to lick the dog or cat poop off our shoes.” Mills relied on statements made in the television report to speculate that the society was trying to maximize profits, stating that Garrett took “delight in slaughtering pets for fun and profit.”

In addressing the actual malice issue, the court found that most of Mills’ comments were opinion, incapable of being proven factually false, except for her assertion that Garrett’s motives were profit-driven. That assertion was made in reliance on comments broadcast in the news report, the court found, and as such were not reckless.

“Private citizens are not required to investigate the investigators to insure that programs aired by a major televison station are accurate and correct before making comments based on those programs,” Judge J.D. Smith wrote for the court.

(Atlanta Humane Society v. Mills, Alan Begner, Robert Adelson, Katherine Wood, Begner & Begner, P.C., Atlanta, Ga.)AG

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