Sports radio remarks ‘exaggerated and uncareful,’ but protected
MINNESOTA–Remarks made during a live sports talk radio program should be considered in context and taken with a grain of salt, a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals in St. Paul ruled in a unanimous opinion in mid-April.
The court upheld the summary judgment dismissal of a defamation suit brought against local sports commentator Sid Hartman and CBS that was based on comments Hartman made about a former orthopedic consultant to the University of Minnesota football team.
The plaintiff, Robert Hunter, contended that Hartman’s remark that Hunter had performed knee surgery on 12 players in 1982 and “hardly any of them came back to play at all” was a charge of incompetence. But the court found “at least five layers of context” that negated that claim.
The court observed that “sports commentary is marked not only by spontaneity, but by the often exaggerated and uncareful exchange of vehemently held opinions; listeners understand the atmosphere of overstatement and ‘take such railings with a grain of salt’.”
The court noted that Hartman’s remark was ambiguous, especially considered along with other comments he made during the radio show. At one point, Hartman said, “I did not say he was incompetent.”
In addition, the court considered “the larger context of public debate” in which Hunter had criticized former Minnesota football coach Lou Holtz for pushing injured athletes to play before they were ready. In that context, Hartman’s comments could be seen as “an attack on [Hunter’s] prudence rather than his professional skill,” the court found.
The court concluded that Hartman’s remarks were, “if not mere hyperbole, at least supportable interpretations that do not assert an objective fact.” (Hunter v. Hartman; Media Counsel: John Borger, Eric Jorstad, Minneapolis)