Unusual Defamation Suit Targets Source of Story

Defamation is a valid legal cause of action designed to protest a person’s good name. The essence of a defamation claim is that a person can sue a person or entity who publishes false statements of fact about another that cause serious harm.

However, there can be a downside to defamation suits, because they can threaten freedom of expression by chilling a person from speaking out for fear of being sued by an overly aggressive or overly sensitive plaintiff. For this reason, there are many defenses and privileges in defamation suits and there is a constitutional overlay, particularly when the person suing is a public official or public figure.

There is a most unusual defamation case still pending in the Tennessee courts. TechDirt refers to the lawsuit of Loftis v. Rayburn as “just baffling.” The Nashville Business Journal has also covered the lawsuit.

Tom Loftis, the former culinary arts director at Nashville State Community College, sued popular restauranteur Randy Rayburn over a March 2016 Tennessean column by food critic writer Jim Myers.

Here is where it gets bizarre. The column by Jim Myers does not feature any quotes from Rayburn. It references Rayburn’s efforts to help the school’s culinary program and includes the following statement: “The program was simply turning out unqualified students.”

Part of what makes the case unusual is that rather than sue The Tennessean or the reporter, Loftis filed suit only against Rayburn. His causes of action are defamation by implication and false light invasion of privacy.

Rayburn filed a motion to dismiss. “Forcing the subject of a news story to defend against an astonishing $1.5 million defamation lawsuit for the simple transgression of being mentioned alongside objectively innocuous coverage that the Plaintiff considers unflattering poses serious and severe risks to the viability of newsgathering in Tennessee,” the motion read.

On July 19, 2007, Tennessee Circuit Court Jones dismissed the lawsuit, writing in an order that “the statements in the Tennessean article are not capable of conveying a defamatory meaning and that they do not give rise to liability as a matter of law.

The trial judge’s ruling was sound. It is hard to see how the comments in the article qualify as defamation. Furthermore, Lawsuits like this could make sources rather timid about talking to the press. That doesn’t serve the public interest.

The case is not over, as Loftis has filed a notice of appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

It is hard to argue with Rayburn’s comments to the Nashville Business Journal: “I think my friend John Seigenthaler would roll over in his grave.”

John Seigenthaler Sr. was the legendary former editor and publisher of The Tennessean and the founder of the First Amendment Center. As my colleague and mentor Gene Policinski wrote for Politico: “John lived a life dedicated to encouraging the greatest possible number of his fellow citizens to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and to use their First Amendment freedoms to the fullest.”

Mr. Seigenthaler believed in a free and vigorous press.

He certainly didn’t believe in defamation lawsuits like this one.

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