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Unclear headline not defamatory

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  1. Libel and Privacy
NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Libel   ·   Sep. 27, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Libel   ·   Sep. 27, 2005

Unclear headline not defamatory

  • A headline that seemed to infer that a doctor had his license suspended due to sexual improprieties was not libelous because the article did not support the claim, a California court ruled.

Sep. 27, 2005  ·   Slight inaccuracies in a sub-headline will not support a defamation claim, a California court ruling Friday. The San Luis Obispo County Superior Court determined that the facts of the case presented no probability that the plaintiff could prevail and dismissed the suit under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute, designed to prevent frivolous SLAPP cases — strategic lawsuits against public participation.

“Taken as a whole, it cannot be said that the inferences advanced by the sub-heading were of such a substantial deviation that they would produce a different effect on the reader,” wrote Judge Martin J. Tangeman of San Luis Obispo County Superior Court. “Especially since the article itself clearly pointed out (in the text) that the Medical Board ‘found insufficient evidence had been presented to support sexual misconduct allegations.'”

The case arose out of a June 2004 article in a San Luis Obispo New Times article about Dr. Glenn Cooperman detailing a recent malpractice judgment against him, a large settlement between him and a former patient who had accused him of sexual impropriety, and his suspension for lying to the California medical board. Cooperman alleged that the story’s sub-headline, “Obstetrician has probationary license, past of sexual improprieties,” made it seem as if his suspension was related to the sexual misconduct, not lying to the board.

The court, however, ruled that the state protects publications “which contain errors so long as the article captures the ‘substance, the gist, and the sting of the libelous charge,'” wrote Tangeman. Since the text of the article clearly stated the medical board did not have enough evidence to support sexual misconduct allegations, the court found that the article as a whole protected the sub-headline.

“It’s an important decision because it turns on a headline,” said Jeffrey Riffer of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro, media counsel for New Times. “It’s common that the headline is not written by the reporter and that, by necessity, it’s going to be a shortened version of the story.”

A ruling otherwise, Riffer said, would prevent copy editors from having to try and put the entire gist of the story in the headline, an almost impossible task for any complicated story.

“The judge used an important common sense and legal principle,” he said. “As long the headline is basically right, it should be good enough” to avoid legal trouble.

(Cooperman v. New Times; Media Counsel: Jeffrey Riffer, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro, Los Angeles, Calif.)CM

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