NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · SEVENTH CIRCUIT · Libel · July 5, 2005
Mistress’ libel suit over prostitution reference dismissed
July 5, 2005 · A columnist’s statements about basketball superstar Michael Jordan’s former mistress could reasonably be construed to have an innocent, non-libelous meaning, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) ruled Wednesday in dismissing a libel lawsuit against the Chicago Sun-Times.
Karla Knafel sued the Sun-Times over an unflattering column in 2003 about her ongoing legal troubles with Jordan, a former boyfriend who she alleges offered her $5 million to keep their affair secret. Columnist Richard Roeper wrote that Knafel was after Jordan’s money from the beginning of the relationship, stating that “there are some women who see a famous horny guy, blink their eyes and hear the ka-ching of a cash register. Women like Karla Knafel.”
Roeper ended the column: “Knafel was once an aspiring singer. She’s now reportedly a hair designer. But, based on the money she’s been paid already and the additional funds she’s seeking in exchange for her affair with Jordan, she’s making herself sound like someone who once worked in a profession that’s a lot older than singing or hair designing.”
In her libel suit, Knafel argued that Roeper’s statements could only be construed to assert that her sexual encounters with Jordan made her a prostitute and that because prostitution is criminal, injury to her reputation should be presumed under the libel per se doctrine.
The court ruled that Knafel could prevail only if she could prove that Roeper’s statement did not have a reasonable non-defamatory meaning. The statement, the court ruled, could easily be interpreted to mean that Knafel is a money-grubber and not a prostitute.
In writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Terence Evans wrote that “the most likely interpretation of the words is that Knafel is a gold digger, a woman who wants a longer term relationship with a man because of his money, not one who would look at a wealthy man and see a chance to make a few quick bucks (or even quite a few quick bucks) for a one-time encounter.”
The court also stated that the reference to Knafel working in an “old” profession was admittedly a reference to prostitution, but could be interpreted to mean that she was demeaning herself for money, not necessarily selling sex.
The case also clarified a 2003 Seventh Circuit case, Musilowski v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., in which the court refused to dismiss a libel case brought by a plaintiff who was not specifically named in the publication. The Seventh Circuit ruled last week that Musilowski holds that motions to dismiss will be denied only in libel cases where defamation is difficult to prove, like unnamed plaintiff cases. Cases like Knafel’s, which involve a simple determination by the court, may still be dismissed.
(Knafel v. Chicago Sun-Times, Media Counsel: Damon Dunn, Funkhouser, Vegosen, Liebman & Dunn, Chicago, Ill.) — AG