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Online report calling officer's statements "lies" defamatory

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MAINE   ·   Libel   ·   July 11, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MAINE   ·   Libel   ·   July 11, 2005

Online report calling officer’s statements “lies” defamatory

  • A labor union Web site story falsely labeling a U.S. Navy officer’s statements as “lies” was defamatory, not mere opinion, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine ruled.

July 11, 2005  ·   Characterizing a navy officer’s statements about unresolved problems at a military base as “lies” was not mere opinion but false statement of fact, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine ruled on June 30, upholding $95,000 in defamation damages against a Web site publisher.

The statements were made by Christopher Wagner, local president of the National Association of Government Employees, as part of a labor dispute with U.S. Navy Lt. Alan J. Ballard.

“The clear implication of Wagner’s publication of the word ‘lie’ . . . is that Ballard in fact intended to deceive the base and his command when he announced that the deficiencies had been addressed,” Judge Robert W. Clifford wrote for the court. “Such an assertion about conduct of a naval officer in his official duties is especially serious, and the facts do not support Wagner’s contention that he was merely expressing an opinion.”

The controversy erupted in March 2000, when Wagner published a Web site subtitled “Dedicated to Exposing Lies at Naval Air Station, Brunswick,” Maine. The site published statements by Ballard that he did not see a proposed contract with union employees, and that an oil leak at an on-base child care center had been repaired. The word “Lie” was handwritten in the margins next to both statements.

A proposal by the union had been made, but while Ballard was out of the state and after the non-union contract had been signed. While the oil leak had not been repaired, Ballard had been told by a subordinate that it had been before he made the statement.

Ballard sued Wagner and the union for defamation, and was awarded $75,000 in damages against the union and Wagner, and an additional $20,000 in punitive damages against Wagner. Wagner and the union appealed to the state high court, which unanimously affirmed the verdict.

As a public official, Ballard had to prove that Wagner made the statements with actual malice – knowing that the statements were false or recklessly regarding whether they were true or not. The court found that because the Web site implied that Ballard tried to deceive his superiors about the union proposal and that Wagner “knew or had good reason to know” that Ballard believed the subordinate’s report on the leak to be accurate, Wagner acted with actual malice in reporting that Ballard lied.

(Ballard v. Wagner)GP

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