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Reporting on matter of public concern cannot support defamation claim if the defamation is only implicit



By Andrew Coffman

An economics professor was quoted in a New York Times article as saying slavery “was not so bad -- you pick cotton and sing songs.” The article, titled “Rand Paul's Mixed Inheritance,” was about libertarianism. It also quoted the professor as saying Woolworth's had the right to exclude blacks from its lunch counters because “no one is compelled to associate with people against their will.”

Unsurprisingly, the economics professor filed suit against the Times and its reporters for defamation.  The professor filed his case in a Louisiana federal court.  Perhaps more surprising is that the economics professor actually admitted he made the statements at issue.  Thus, instead of arguing that the reporting of the statements was false, the economics professor argued that the statements were reported out of context and falsely painted him as a racist.  

The Times moved to dismiss the case under Louisiana’s anti-SLAPP statute. In its decision to dismiss the case, the court held, “Perceptions about [the professor’s] notions of race related issues were largely fueled and published by [the professor] himself. In this regard, [the professor] cannot complain about resulting perceptions of insensitivity and levity on serious issues like slavery.”

However, the basis for the court’s decision was not that the professor brought this derision on himself.  Instead, the court determined that even if the statements might imply some defamatory meaning, it was valid.  The Court held that under Louisiana law, defamation by implication was valid only if the alleged defamation was about a private party and about a private matter.  In this case, the matter was one of public concern and thus was not capable of supporting a defamation claim.




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