The Rhode Island Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a defamation claim brought by a restaurant owner against two journalists for their coverage of a 2009 "off the record" event at his restaurant where attendees included politicians, businesspeople and press members.
According to Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg's story, the media who attended were not allowed to write about the "roast" hosted by an elected state official at Robert Burke's restaurant. Gregg's article attributed the press policy to Burke, who denied it prior to the publication of the story.
The court stated that a reader of the article might have concluded that the rule was imposed because "[Burke] was concerned that if the brash, politically-incorrect humor employed during the lunch was read out of context, it might create 'an impression of an event that is mean-spirited.'"
On the same day the article was published, WPRO-AM talk host Dan Yorke read the article to his audience and discussed it on air. According to Yorke's attorney, Jeffrey Brenner, Burke called into the radio show at that time and had an on-air conversation with Yorke. At some point, Yorke used strong language to criticize Burke for issuing a "gag order." Yorke called the restaurant owner "stupid," a "punk," and a "piece of garbage."
Burke responded to Gregg's article and Yorke's broadcast by suing the two journalists and their companies for libel and slander.
Burke's lawsuit was originally dismissed. In affirming the lower court's decision to dismiss the lawsuit, the Supreme Court explained why neither Gregg's nor Yorke's statements could be found defamatory.
In the case of Gregg's article, the court found that attributing a controversial "off the record" rule to Burke, even if the attribution was slightly inaccurate, could not be defamatory because the court could not "conceive of how these comments could reasonably be interpreted to have injuriously affected Burke's reputation, degraded him in society, or brought him into public hatred and contempt."
"I think it was a solid decision, on an area of the law which is well defined in Rhode Island," said Gregg's attorney, Joseph Cavanagh. "We were not surprised, but were pleased, that the court affirmed that in order to go forward with [a libel suit], the statement has to be defamatory. In other words, hold someone up to hatred, contempt and ridicule."
Yorke's statements were found to not be defamatory because they were opinions based on underlying fact, which are protected under the First Amendment. The court noted that although Burke was offended by Yorke's statements, the precedent still stood that "it is a prized American privilege to speak one's mind, although not always with perfect good taste."
"[I]t was pure opinion based on disclosed facts," said Brenner in an interview regarding Yorke's statements. "That’s what they do on talk radio shows – they talk about the news of the day that they get from a newspaper. That’s why it’s not defamatory."
Calls placed to Burke and his attorney were not returned.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· The First Amendment Handbook: 1. Libel