Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Paper Chase

The Warrior Princess, by day, is a 3rd Year law student and fast rising star in legal circles. She puts her considerable research talents to use on the Star Tribune, Jim Boyd, and the potential for a defamation lawsuit against them.

Happened to be at the Fair Saturday in conversation with Scott "the Big Trunk" Johnson and Hugh "the Prince of Pronto Pups" Hewitt when Scott unveiled an advanced copy of his rebuttal to Jim Boyd's smear piece in last week's Star Tribune. Shocked and amazed at Boyd's article, Hugh noted Hinderaker and Johnson (H & J) probably have an actionable defamation suit on their hands. I did a quick search of current case law to try to figure out their chances.

Jim Boyd's column would be defamatory if it caused enough harm to "lower the community's estimation of the individual or to deter others from associating or dealing with the individual." Weissman v. Sri Lanka Curry House, Inc., 469 N.W.2d 471, 473 (Minn.App.1991). In Jim Boyd's two columns addressing H & J, he referred to their piece as "fraudulent" and to the Powerline duo as "smear artists" who "take the art of slime-throwing to levels of immorality seldom seen". In Mr. Boyd's estimation, their "deliberate smear" of John Kerry did not rise to a level of discourse worthy of the Star Tribune editorial page. He accused H & J of knowingly disseminating false information, not only besmirching their personal honor but also their professional reputations. I leave it to the reader to hypothesize whether or not this rises to the level of defamation as defined by the courts of the State of Minnesota.

When an injured party is a public figure, as are H & J, beyond the regular elements of a defamation claim, (which probably wouldn't be in question in this case) a successful claim must prove the offending party made the false statements "with knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard for the truth." Weinberger v. Maplewood Review, 668 N.W.2d 667 (Minn. 2003). Boyd called H & J's piece "fraudulent," yet as pointed out in their rebuttal did so in a "remarkably fact-free" fashion. Maybe Boyd has some secret crib sheet completely exonerating Kerry that he fails to share with not only his readers, but also the Kerry campaign. If Boyd does not, then it would seem he is in quite a bind. Either Boyd maliciously accused H and J of fraud knowingly and willfully seeking to defame their character without cause, or his visceral reaction to the sight of Kerry being skewered before his eyes led him to recklessly ignore the facts clearly communicated in H & J's article. Either way, it would seem Boyd's actions amount to actual malice, making him liable under the tort of defamation.

Maybe the Star Tribune recognized the merits of H & J's original piece, and printed H & J's rebuttal against Boyd's wishes out of a sense of fairness and accuracy. Maybe they printed the rebuttal because their legal department informed them the first amendment doesn't protect journalists who maliciously slander those holding opinions not their own. Whatever the case, at least in this wannabe lawyer's opinion, they better hope Hinderaker and Johnson let bygones be bygones, because that would be one ugly case for Jim Boyd and the Star Tribune.

I agree, the Star Tribune could have their hands full if Hinderaker and Johnson aren't satisfied with their make good overtures. We encourage the Powerline duo to consider their options very carefully before letting bygones be bygones. The Star Tribune's editorial page arrogance needs a cold slap of reality. Plus, we encourage anything to distract Hinderaker from planning his defamation lawsuit against the Elder for this.

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