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A Difficult Defamation Case – Disclaimers

The First Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Stanton v. Metro Corp. recently held that a disclaimer at the beginning of an article about teenage sexual mores does not insulate the Defendant-publisher from potential defamation liability. 

In that case, the Defendant Metro Corp. published a story in the Boston magazine entitled "The Mating Habits of the Suburban High School Teenager."  A picture of the Plaintiff, taken of her from a high school dance she attended, and in which there were four other people in the picture, was placed just above the text of the article. 

There was a disclaimer that was placed below the picture of the plaintiff and the four others in the picture, and rested between the title of the article and the text of the article that stated "The photos on these pages are from an award-winning five year project on teen sexuality taken by photo-journalist Dan Habib.  The individuals pictured are unrelated to the people or events described in this story.  The names of the teenagers interviewed for this story have been changed."  The Plaintiff contended she was defamed because she was never involved in any such "project on teen sexuality."  However, on appeal, her arguments focussed exclusively on the fact that she was defamed because of the presence of her picture just above the text of the article, and how readers would incorrectly conclude that she was in any way related to the article, notwithstanding the presence of the disclaimer.

The Court ultimately found that alhough the disclaimer preceded the text of the article and was likely read by the readers of the article, the Plaintiff was still potentially defamed because in the opinion of the Court, it was reasonable to conclude that there were readers who perhaps did not see the disclaimer, or choose not to read the disclaimer, or choose to only read a part of the disclaimer.  The court overturned the decision of the lower court and concluded that the Plaintiff’s claim should survive the Defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

In my opinon the Court ruled correctly.  When dealing with such a sensitive topic as teenage sexuality, publishers should be required to protect, as much as possible, individuals like the Plaintiff from being potentially defamed, and should be required to publish similar disclaimers in such a font style and size that readers’ eyes would invariably see the relevant disclaimer, so as to prevent the possible confusion that the Court saw possibly arising on these facts.

The area of defamation is an interesting prong of personal injury law because it deals with the oftentimes elusive and intangible concept of injury to reputation.  Please send me any comments you may have with respect to this post and the case it discussed.

Click here for a link to the full opinion of Stanton v. Metro Corp.

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