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Prisoner who placed online ad must prove actual malice

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  1. Libel and Privacy
An incarcerated felon who placed a personal advertisement on a website is a limited purpose public figure who could not…

An incarcerated felon who placed a personal advertisement on a website is a limited purpose public figure who could not meet the heightened standard of proof of actual malice in his defamation claim against the Boston Herald and a Herald reporter for the paper's series on prisoners and online dating, a Massachusetts appellate court ruled earlier this week in LaChance v. Boston Herald.

In addition to the plaintiff's status as a public figure, the subject matter of the allegedly defamatory articles — the dangers of interacting with violent felons on the Internet — addressed a matter of public concern and, thus, the imprisoned plaintiff, Edmund D. LaChance, Jr., was required to prove that the defendants acted with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity, the court held.

LaChance's claims arose from three articles the Herald published in 2005, all of which prominently featured him, as "his advertisement was particularly misleading and controversial," according to the court opinion. Specifically, although the plaintiff's advertisement on a website dubbed "Inmate Connections" disclosed that he was incarcerated, it also stated that "I'm not a bad man and I treat everyone the way I wish to be treated," despite his conviction for aggravated rape, the opinion stated. The plaintiff's ad did not disclose the nature of his convictions.

The Herald's first article inaccurately reported that the plaintiff had been convicted of manslaughter, and the latter two asserted that he claimed in his ad to be in prison for manslaughter. The third article also suggested that the plaintiff had instead committed a brutal sexual attack on an elderly woman.

Despite these conceded inaccuracies, the trial court tossed the claims and the appellate court affirmed on Tuesday.

Relying on Gertz v. Welch, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that established the standard for deciding whether a plaintiff is a limited purpose public figure, the court found that LaChance had "voluntarily inject[ed] himself . . . into a particular public controversy."

"Here, the plaintiff, of his own volition, placed a personal advertisement on the Web site 'Inmate Corrections,' which included a picture of himself taken in a prison," the court noted. "He actively sought the attention of those visiting the site by indicating that he was seeking friendship, romance, legal help, and monetary donations."

In addition to ruling that LaChance did not meet his burden of proving actual malice, the court also found that the minor inaccuracies in the stories — that LaChance had been convicted of manslaughter, rather than rape, and admitted to such in his personal ad — did not render the "gist" or "sting" of the article actionably false.

"The purpose of the defendants' articles was to create public awareness of the dangers of responding to online advertisements by violent incarcerated prisoners," the court said. "Publication of the plaintiff's actual criminal record . . . would have been, at the very least, equally as damaging to the plaintiff's reputation in the mind of a reader.

"In context, the 'gist' of the articles . . . was that inmate advertisements in general should not be trusted and the plaintiff's particular advertisement was dangerously deceptive by withholding his crimes while portraying himself in a light that would seem more innocuous to potential respondents on a matchmaking Web site."

Moreover, defendants were protected by the fair report privilege, which protects fair and accurate reports of judicial, legislative or other official proceedings, when they relied on an inaccurate court document stating that LaChance had committed a brutal sexual attack on an elderly woman, the court held.

"The defendants' article contained a fair and accurate report of the docket entry that was in existence at the time of publication," the court stated. "The defendants had no way of knowing that the record was incorrect, since the docket was not amended until months after the articles had been published."

A representative of the Herald declined to comment on the opinion when contacted Wednesday afternoon.