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Reporter not liable for calling commissioner's aide a “goon”

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW MEXICO         Libel         Apr 24, 2001    

Reporter not liable for calling commissioner’s aide a “goon”

  • Use of the word was “simply name calling” and not defamatory, an appellate court ruled.

Calling a political aide a “goon” after the aide restrained the reporter from contacting a county commissioner is not defamatory, a New Mexico appellate court ruled on March 12. The New Mexico Supreme Court declined to review the case on April 16.

KOAT-TV (Albuquerque) reporter Larry Barker was working on an investigative story on pay raises of Bernalillo County Commissioners in June 1995. When he was at the county building in Albuquerque to interview commissioners, Louie Maldonado, an assistant to County Commissioner Al Valdez, physically blocked him from speaking with Valdez as the trio walked down a hallway.

Barker finally patted Maldonado on the shoulder and asked Valdez to “call off your goon.” The incident was recorded on video by a cameraman from Barker’s station. Later Valdez told a different news station that Barker had called his assistant “an absolutely horrible name.” Maldonado also gave an interview, describing the incident and the use of the epithet “goon.”

Three years after the incident Maldonado sued Barker for defamation and battery. The trial judge dismissed the defamation claim, granting summary judgment to Baker because, it said, asking someone to call off their “goon” did not constitute defamation. After a trial on the battery issue, the jury exonerated Barker.

The New Mexico Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and noted that “referring to (Maldonado) as a ‘goon’ was simply name calling, and thus, not defamatory.”

The court also upheld the jury’s verdict on the battery claim. On appeal Maldonado argued that he did not have to prove that the touching was done in a rude, insolent or angry manner. The appellate court reiterated the New Mexico rule that for a cause of action for battery, the plaintiff must prove “that the touching caused harmful or offensive contact.”

“The question of this case is whether public officials can surround themselves with bodyguards then cry foul when they happen to have physical contact with a reporter,” Barker’s attorney, Victor Marshall said. “It’s a serious proposition because in theory battery can be a purely offensive touching and that’s why it can be so dangerous when it’s used this way as another attempt to chill the press.”

(Maldonado v. Barker; Media Counsel: Victor R. Marshall, Albuquerque, N.M.) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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